By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006
Wouldn't it be nice to have the highway all to yourself? All alone during rush hour, whizzing down Interstate 395 with not a single car or bus to get in your way? Alas, even the leader of the free world doesn't get that kind of treatment.
Not that he didn't ask.
On Tuesday, the Secret Service asked Virginia officials if they would be kind enough to shut down all of the HOV lanes on I-395 from 1 to 7 p.m. the next day so President Bush could get where he needed to be, according to state officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing the president's travel.
The request was made ahead of a fundraiser for Sen. George Allen (R) held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at a house near Mount Vernon -- a good hour's drive from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during a typical rush hour.
The request came into Virginia's Smart Traffic Center on Tuesday morning, one official said. "We were sort of dealing with it all day," the official said.
All day because they couldn't shake the image of what closing the HOV lanes would do: Buses that normally use the high-speed lanes would have to be rerouted or canceled; commuters who hitch rides in carpools would be stranded; and thousands of cars would be added to the congested regular lanes of I-395.
An e-mail prepared by state experts who monitor traffic captures the issue:
"There will be approximately 8,600 cars using the HOV lanes over a three hour period (4 to 7 pm). This equates to approximately 20,000 to 22,000 people. If the HOV lanes are closed, according to the District's estimate the back up of traffic in the general purpose lanes will not be cleared until 10 p.m."
In other words, a nearly endless traffic jam.
"It would give a new meaning to political gridlock in D.C.," laughed John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "You have to wonder, What were they thinking? It makes you shake your head and say, 'Only in Washington.' "
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino referred calls to the Secret Service, saying the president's staff stays out of such decisions and leaves them to the security experts. Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin said that "certainly, closing down the HOV was one of the options that was being discussed."
The original idea was to close the HOV lanes briefly for the trip to the fundraiser, reopen them and then close them for the trip home, according to officials with the Secret Service. When federal officials found out that, for logistical reasons, Virginia would have to keep them closed the entire time, it became clear it would be too disruptive.
A spokesman for Allen, who gathered campaign cash with Bush at the home of former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, said he had no idea the Secret Service had made such a request.
"I'm not aware of any such thing," campaign manager Dick Wadhams said. "We would not have supported such a proposal. Oh my Lord. Wow. No. Not aware of any such proposal. Certainly grateful it didn't happen that way."
It didn't, the state officials said, because folks in Virginia worked "into the night" to convince those in Washington of the commuter -- and political -- nightmare that could ensue, one Richmond official said.
The efforts included calls to the Secret Service and to people in Washington who might be more politically attuned to the TV news contrast between Bush at a glitzy fundraiser and miles of red brake lights on the highway.
It took a bit of convincing, they said, but ultimately word came down that no road closure would be necessary.
Mackin said that "by 7 p.m., the decision was made" that the president would find another way to the fundraiser.
In a "stand-down" e-mail sent at 9:24 p.m., Virginia officials were given reason to breathe a sigh of relief.
"No hov issues, no additional support will be needed," the Virginia e-mail said.
When all was said and done, the president did what just about all Northern Virginia motorists probably wish they could do.
He flew over rush hour in a helicopter.