Traffic and Commuters Snarl as District Clears Runners' Route

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

The sobbing mourners shuffled into the Baptist church in Columbia Heights just before 10 a.m. yesterday to pay their last respects to Andre Harrison, 42, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. Then they waited. And waited. And waited some more.

The hearse with the body, it turns out, was stuck in traffic for more than an hour and a half.

The living and dead across much of the city were trapped in snarling congestion caused by the first National Marathon run entirely within District lines. Some commuters spent hours trying to move just a few miles. A few ditched their cars by the side of the road and decided to walk. Others just seethed in anger.

"It took the hearse 15 minutes to go a city block!" cried Reginald Blackwell, chairman of the deacons at Mount Rona Missionary Baptist Church. "In 20 years here, I've never seen the family have to wait for a body because the traffic is so bad."

Some community activists and motorists lambasted city officials and marathon organizers for not doing enough to inform the public about road closures and alternate routes. The traffic jams stretched from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in some parts of the city.

"I am so irate right now. Is there a parade or something?" said Althea Black, 43, in a cellphone interview during a 90-minute commute from her Petworth home to downtown to pick up her sister. The drive normally takes 15 minutes. "I don't know what's causing the problem, but no one should be allowed to shut down the city like this."

Erik Linden, a spokesman for the District's Department of Transportation, said the city had put out 60 10-foot-tall message boards across the city starting last Sunday to warn motorists. "BE ADVISED MAJOR ROAD CLOSURES," the orange, electronic signs read. "USE METRORAIL."

"My message this week was three-pronged: Take Metro. Take Metro. Take Metro," Linden said. "This was a great day to not use your car, and we worked to get that message out."

The traffic jams affected many sections of the city because marathon organizers chose a route that snaked through all four quadrants of the District, city officials said. The marathoners ran through several residential neighborhoods, not just past national landmarks.

"In a marathon that represents all of the city, you really want to represent all of the city," said Sandra Walter, a marathon spokeswoman. "I've gotten a lot of calls from people who said, 'Yeah it was a minor inconvenience, but that's life in the city.' "

Andy Litsky, vice chairman of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission for a Southwest Washington waterfront area, said the marathon route effectively blocked off nearly every exit out of his community from 7 to 10 a.m.

"We were on lockdown," he said.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who ran in the race, and marathon officials said they would consider changes to the route next year and decide whether to alter how they inform the public about road closures and detours.

The marathon also caused trouble for people trying to take public transportation. Yolanda Black, who works at the E Street Cinema downtown, said she tried to catch a bus at 11th and E streets at 9 a.m. After waiting 40 minutes, she gave up and tried to catch a cab. No luck there, either. So she called her sister, Althea, who eventually arrived after 1 1/2 hours.

"I actually saw people at the bus stop begging other people for rides up the street," Black said. "Why weren't there any signs explaining which buses were running and which ones weren't?"

Joanne Ferreira, a Metro spokeswoman, said it wasn't possible to put notices on the hundreds of bus stops along the 37 bus routes affected by the marathon. "We are very sorry if anyone was inconvenienced," she said.

But not everyone was ready to accept apologies. Katie Rynn, 26, a television producer, spent her morning in Arlington County picking flower arrangements for her wedding (she chose calla lilies for herself and white tulips for the bridesmaids). After spending an hour on what is normally the 15-minute drive to her fiance's apartment in Kalorama, she eventually decided to abandon her car and walk the last few blocks.

"A nice, happy morning turned into a nightmare," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company