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Changed City Since Last Papal Visit

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Washington has grown up a lot since the last time a pope visited.

Back then, transportation planners were worried about whether there would be enough gas for the spectators and worshipers driving to see Pope John Paul II.

That was October 1979. The region was smaller, and so was its transit system.

The gas shortage had passed its crisis level, but, in that auto-dependent environment, the planners made sure 35 service stations on major routes received extra fuel.

Metrorail had opened in 1976 but was a scrawny version of today's robust 106-mile, 86-station system. For a Sunday afternoon papal Mass on the Mall, Metro stayed open from 6 a.m. until midnight and suspended the Farecard system, asking instead that riders throw 50 cents into barrels.

Passengers heading for Pope Benedict XVI's Mass at the new Nationals Park on Thursday will be riding to a station that didn't exist in 1979. Many will pay their fare with a $9 commemorative Metrorail Mass Pass.

So is our bigger, more sophisticated transportation system ready for the new pope? I think so, but it will require the public as well as the planners to pay attention.

The 1979 visit was on a holiday weekend. This time, the pope will be in the capital on four weekdays.

Commuters endure the occasional inconvenience of rolling traffic stops caused by motorcades, but this will be different.

Tens of thousands of people from across the nation will be in town looking for any opportunity to see a world spiritual leader, and in addition to the Thursday Mass, there will be popemobile processions to accommodate them.

In planning for the Mass, transportation officials are dealing with some known quantities. Unlike the 1979 Mass held in a wide-open space, this one is inside a stadium with a set capacity. But the Mall Mass was in the midst of a three-day weekend. This Thursday morning, worshipers will compete with commuters on the roads and trains.

Metro, which has been dealing well with transporting fans to the few Nationals baseball games held so far at the stadium, will face a greater challenge Thursday. But officials say the system is ready to accommodate at least 25,000 of the 47,000 people on their way to the Mass, in addition to the commuters who use the Green Line's Navy Yard Station.

The Mass is scheduled to be held from 10 a.m. to noon, but organizers want the worshipers at the stadium by 8:30 a.m. Metro commuters who park at the outer stations will probably find them more crowded than usual.

They might also notice crowding Wednesday, when people will come in for papal appearances in central Washington and in Brookland. Transfer points at Metro Center, Gallery Place and L'Enfant Plaza also are expected to be extra crowded.

On Thursday morning, commuters who normally use South Capitol Street's Frederick Douglass Bridge, near Nationals Park, will want to consider the 11th Street bridge as an alternative. Look for heavy charter bus traffic around RFK Stadium, where worshipers can board shuttles to the Mass.

Metro regulars must show patience. Visitors won't stand to the right on escalators, they'll have that funny look people get when they realize the closing train doors don't bounce back and some might even be chewing food.

At street level, drivers must be extra careful about pedestrians. There will be more families on the streets than weekday commuters are used to. And they'll be focusing on the shortest, quickest path to the pope rather than on traffic.

Dr. Gridlock appears Thursday in the Extras and Sunday in the Metro section. You can send e-mails todrgridlock@washpost.com. Include your name, home community and phone numbers.

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