By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington this week could cause major traffic backups and disrupt subway and bus commutes on a scale not seen since the state funeral for former president Ronald Reagan four years ago, transportation officials said.
The pope arrives Tuesday and will remain in the city until Friday morning. His busiest days will be Wednesday and Thursday, when several events coincide with morning and afternoon rush hours. The Frederick Douglass/South Capitol Street bridge, a major commuter route, will be closed from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday for the pope's 10 a.m. Mass at Nationals Park. The Mass, which has generated much excitement, will create tie-ups for thousands of drivers entering Washington from Southern Maryland and Prince George's County.
Other street closures -- some rolling, some several hours long -- will disrupt at least 20 Metrobus routes during the week, including key crosstown routes. Among people who will be affected are D.C. schoolchildren who use public transportation and those who rely on buses for transportation to dialysis and other medical appointments at hospitals near Catholic University and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. Metro hopes to post detour notices at bus stops soon. Street closures also will disrupt MetroAccess, the paratransit service.
The pope is scheduled to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base at 4 p.m. Tuesday. The next day, he meets with President Bush at the White House and travels to the shrine. In addition to the Mass, he plans to visit Catholic University on Thursday. He leaves for New York Friday morning from Andrews Air Force Base.
Thursday is expected to pose the biggest challenge. Transportation officials are urging those who don't have to drive to work that day to stay off the roads. "If you can stay home and telecommute that day or take Metro, please do," said Karyn LeBlanc, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Transportation.
Those taking Metro should be prepared for large rush-hour crowds Wednesday and Thursday. Metro will operate rush-hour service both days, from opening at 5 a.m. through 7 p.m. and possibly later if ridership warrants, said Lisa Farbstein, a transit agency spokeswoman. (Metro will not charge rush-hour fares during off-peak periods.)
Riders might also need to be extra patient.
"We're anticipating a [ridership] that is not as familiar with the system, and we're anticipating a crowd that might be older, which would slow down the normal flow," Farbstein said.
That is likely to be the case at the Brookland Metro station on the Red Line, the closest subway stop to the shrine and Catholic University. On an average weekday, about 13,000 people use the station. Ridership could double, but the station is not equipped to handle large numbers of people, Metro officials said.
The station has two escalators from the platform to the mezzanine and one escalator and one staircase from the mezzanine to the street-level exit for Catholic University. Trains might have to stay in the station, with doors closed, to allow the platform to clear. Extra personnel will be on hand for crowd control.
The pope's schedule includes two motorcades Wednesday, and his private meeting with 300 bishops at the shrine is expected to draw 8,000 ticket-holders, who will gather outside to see him walk up the steps. Thursday's Mass is expected to draw a crowd of 47,000 to the Southeast Washington ballpark. Seats are being added to the baseball field to increase the capacity of the 41,888-seat stadium. About 5 p.m. that day, the pope has meetings at Catholic University and another motorcade.
Although traffic and crowds for the National Cherry Blossom Festival and sports events have moved relatively smoothly, the logistics of the pope's visit are more difficult, officials said. Unlike the Nationals' regular-season opener, which fell on a Sunday night, the pope's events overlap with rush hour.
In addition to people with tickets for various events, thousands are expected to line the streets in hopes of glimpsing the pope in his motorcades and receiving a blessing.
The Mass, especially, will draw out-of-towners. The Washington Archdiocese distributed 45,000 tickets for the Mass, of which 14,000 were sent to other dioceses.
Metro is urging participants to buy a commemorative one-day Mass Pass for $9 to avoid congestion at Farecard machines. Unlike a regular one-day pass, the Mass Pass can be used before 9:30 a.m. People parking at Metro lots will need a SmarTrip card to pay for parking.
Metro's largest ridership was 850,636 for Reagan's funeral in June 2004. The day of the pope's Mass "has that type of potential," Farbstein said.
Worshipers for the Mass must be in their seats by 8:30 a.m. Unlike at ballgames, when fans tend to trickle in and leave at different times, "nobody is going to trickle out in the middle of the pope's Mass," Farbstein said. "There's more likely to be a bigger crush afterward."
Wednesday is a holiday for D.C. schools and government, which will be closed. It is Emancipation Day, which marks the freeing of slaves in the District.
Rolling street closures will take place as the pope travels across the city. Drivers should expect delays, officials said. Longer closures will be in effect when the pope is in one location. Several streets around Catholic University will be closed from about 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and from about 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday. Hospitals in that neighborhood will have access for emergency vehicles, officials said.
The South Capitol Street bridge will be closed between I Street and Potomac Avenue because of the Mass. Signs will be placed along the Interstate 295 corridor to alert people to the closure, and detour signs will direct motorists to the 11th Street bridges.