Getting Around Eased by Day Off Work and Warnings to Motorists
By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page A28
A week of detours, delays and disruptions ended relatively smoothly yesterday as drivers found few significant problems on downtown Washington streets, even though many thoroughfares were closed for parts of the day.
The region with the third-worst traffic in the nation showed that it could handle itself admirably when asked to, transportation officials said of all the processions and motorcades, and the sometimes shifting information about them.
"This goes to show that the region can respond and react properly as far as planning ahead and making sure things go smoothly," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
There was no limit to anxiety at the outset of the week. Officials easily imagined one nightmare scenario after another: backups that stretched for dozens of miles, the possibility of closing the Capital Beltway at rush hour, travelers unaware of the ceremonies, Metro unable to handle the crowding and on and on.
But in the end, little of that came to pass, largely because the federal government decided to allow workers to leave early Wednesday and declared yesterday a national day of mourning. The city government followed suit, as did many private companies, taking thousands of cars off the streets.
"Having the declared holiday was key to [everything] being successful," said Dan Tangherlini, the director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. Otherwise, he said, "there would have been a real mess."
Mike Fassler typified the situation of many Washingtonians. He said he had a generally easy time commuting from Stafford County to the city during the week but nevertheless ran into some hassles.
For instance, Fassler's Wednesday lunch hour was spent driving his car from his downtown office to Pentagon City, where he parked it because he was afraid all the road closures would leave him trapped in the District. That proved to be an unenjoyable hour of midday traffic and a Metro ride, he said.
Then when he left for home about 5:30 p.m., he walked in 90-plus-degree heat to a packed Metro platform, where he had to wait for a train or two to pass before he could board a crowded Metro car. "It was extremely hot and uncomfortable," Fassler said. "It was one of those sardine situations."
But aside from that, everything went pretty well for him. "Thursday was very normal, and [Friday] morning traffic was very, very light," he said.
Officials said traffic was diminished because many who went to the office staggered their arrival and departure times and turned to Metro in record numbers. The system set an all-time high Wednesday when people made more than 850,000 trips, while Thursday's 763,000 trips became the fourth-highest total in the system's 28-year history.
Many of the converts found the hot, crowded cars that daily riders know all too well, but many also said their trips were relatively easy as Metro ran extra cars and trains for much of the week.
Though Metro has struggled with some challenges, such as snowstorms and heavy crowds for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, the system had few problems this week.
On Metro's record day Wednesday, for instance, the difficulties were limited to the usual: A couple of trains overshot platforms, some doors jammed, passengers got sick. Metro had to unload trains five times, and the worst problem was an elevator entrapment that lasted 13 minutes.
The result was that it was easier in many places to drive around than it was on normal summer weeks when roads are filled with the usual workers, taxis and delivery trucks, plus thousands of direction-challenged tourists.
Drivers experienced some disruptions yesterday as they were forced to adjust their plans because of the street closures.
But the frustrations were relatively minor: Some turned the wrong way down one-way streets, others were forced to circle blocks a few times before finding their way, and still others had to wait through multiple traffic light cycles.
A few, perhaps, were surprised to find themselves driving between sidewalks filled with spectators. Motorists were allowed onto the same streets Reagan's procession would take a short time later.
Police had announced Thursday that those streets would be closed well before the funeral procession started traveling through the city.
"These things are fluid," said Quintin Peterson, a District police officer, who didn't know why the roads were open so close to the time of the procession.
Steve Wilson, a driver for D.C. Taxi Transportation, said that there were some spots of gridlock near the Mall yesterday morning but that traffic wasn't too rough -- and all the extra people turned into some extra fares.
Wilson said his trips took "about five minutes [longer] because you had to sit in traffic, but otherwise, everything was cool."
Officials said their campaign to advise travelers through the media, highway signs and Web sites had been effective.
"The evidence from this week is that when people have good information, they will respond," Tangherlini said.
Tangherlini praised his staff for doing such things as retiming traffic lights to handle Wednesday's early rush hour, hanging flags along the processional route and even repaving about a mile of Waterside Drive late into the night so the procession would have an easier ride.
Nonetheless, he'll be happy not to see anything like this again.
"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "I hope everyone can live forever."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company