Seriously. Take Metro.

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Metro, Metro, Metro," Debra Lerner Cohen told me, and did I listen? The member of the Lerner family charged with getting the word out about how -- and how not-- to get to Nationals Park warned me against driving to the new stadium without a reserved parking space.

But we're car people, and we like a parking challenge. So even before the team plays its first game at its new home, I ventured down to the Southeast Washington waterfront at rush hour to simulate the experience fans will have getting to weekday games after the season starts March 30.

In my search for the best way to the ballpark, I found a vast and mysterious new urban landscape, block after block of fenced-off rubble still on its way to becoming parking lots for season ticket holders only, streets still being paved and striped, and a bewildering web of dead-ends, highway underpasses and jam-packed, backed-up merge lanes.

I sat and sat on the ramp from Interstate 395 onto South Capitol Street, waiting 13 minutes to move half a mile. I cruised residential streets west of the ballpark, looking for lawns, alleys or lots where enterprising neighbors might want to rent me a parking space. But the Syphax Gardens and James Creek housing projects offered precious few parking possibilities. I checked out promisingly empty streets tucked under the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, only to discover johns and ladies of the night doing their business in the open air -- and one no-parking zone after another.

Then I saw the newly expanded Metro station, less than a block from the ballpark. Hmmm.

After decades of building shopping centers designed to make visiting easy-in, easy-out, the Lerners find themselves in the business of telling customers to get out of their cars.

In a broadcast and print ad campaign set to start next week, the Nationals will send fans an emphatic message: If you don't have pre-paid parking, "Don't drive to Nationals Park."

Instead, "declare your independence from ballgame traffic," advises "Thomas Jefferson," who recommends the Nats Express, a free shuttle bus from the free parking the team is providing at RFK Stadium. Fifty buses running continuously from 90 minutes before each game till 90 minutes afterward will be able to handle 7,500 fans.

"Win the race to the game with Metro," adds "Teddy Roosevelt," the perennial also-ran in the Nats' nightly Presidents Race. Metro says it can move 25,000 people through the Navy Yard Station in 45 minutes. (The stadium holds 41,000 fans.)

On the radio, a spot called "Rubbing It In" features a gleeful taunt of a phone conversation between a guy who took Metro to the game and his buddy who is still circling the neighborhood in search of parking. "I just drank the last beer; now they're all out," the smart guy says.

"You've got to change people's behaviors," Cohen said. "We don't want people to drive around in circles muttering in frustration. Our message is Metro, Metro, Metro."

So, Metro. The Navy Yard Station sits barely a home run's trajectory from the entrance gates. But it's on the Green Line, which doesn't reach Northern Virginia or Montgomery County, the two places that account for well over half of the Nats' fan base. That means switching trains at Gallery Place or Fort Totten on the Red Line or L'Enfant Plaza on the Orange, Blue or Yellow lines.

To avoid changing trains, you could get off at Capitol South Station on the Orange and Blue lines. It's a one-mile walk to the stadium, but so far, no signs show the way. Making the 20-minute trek down New Jersey Avenue at dusk, I found a desolate, difficult path along which many street lights are out, sidewalks are not continuous and the passage under the highway and past a vast trash transfer station is downright scary.

D.C. officials insist that they will light and spruce up the route in time for opening night, and Cohen said the owners choose "to believe the city." For now, I'd stick to Navy Yard Station.

If you insist on driving -- Cohen said "a limited number" of the 5,000 spaces near the stadium will be open to drop-in fans -- avoid the Capitol Street exit off I-395 at all costs. Far better for those coming from Virginia and other points west: Take the Maine Avenue exit and zip east on M Street straight to the park. The backup to I-395's Sixth Street SE exit is fearsome, but once you get to the ramp, it's fast and easy to the ballpark. Drivers arriving from the east have a huge advantage -- the trip in against rush-hour traffic via either the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge or I-395 coming from I-295 is relatively smooth.

The good news: This mess is temporary. As soon as next season, the first underground garages built as part of the office and residential district surrounding the stadium are expected to open. But will parking options near the ballpark improve sufficiently before RFK is razed?

Washington won this team with the promise of an urban ballpark that fans would reach largely by mass transit, like the downtown arena where the Wizards and Capitals play. But neither the Lerners nor Major League Baseball knew quite how car-unfriendly the new site would be. The detail-obsessed owners and their staffers in the Transportation Situation Room are making the best of a tough situation; now it's the fans' turn to work out their own strategies.

"There's a learning curve," Cohen said. "But we're focused on giving fans a good first impression. They're going to love the stadium. And if we have a winning team, this whole process will go a lot faster."

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