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Can Mall Be Filled For an Inauguration? 4 Million May Try It.

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Mayor Adrian Fenty talks to The Washington Post's Nikita Stewart on how the city's plans to handle the huge event. Video by Hamil Harris/Washington Post

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By Nikita Stewart and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

District and federal officials are preparing for as many as 4 million people for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, a crowd that would be three or four times larger than previous big events on the Mall.

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Only a fraction of those people will be close enough to get a good look at the action. But officials are planning extra JumboTrons at the Mall and along the inaugural parade route so that spectators can feel a part of the historic day.

"The Mall actually may be the best seat in the house. . . . It'll kind of be like the world's biggest stage and auditorium on January 20th," said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), adding that the crowd projections have emerged in briefings conducted by federal and local officials.

All plans are pending approval of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, to be set up by Obama, which determines the size and nature of the inaugural festivities, Fenty said. But District officials have met several times with the Secret Service and other agencies.

The Secret Service is taking the lead in overseeing security and other logistics. Even for a city that has hosted vast throngs for marches, protests, celebrations, funerals and inaugurations, this will be an unprecedented test of planning and resources. The question arises: Can the city handle it? Can millions of people fit downtown?

Or, could there be another Meltdown of '76?

That year, a million spectators were expected on the Mall to celebrate the Bicentennial. Transit officials urged people to take public transportation and promised special service. But there was nothing special about the Fourth of July traffic jam, which stranded cars and buses for hours.

District and federal officials blamed a flawed and smaller mass transit system for the 1976 embarrassment. They expressed confidence that they can handle this January's events. At the same time, they know that Inauguration Day 2009 will be one of a kind.

For example, Fenty said, officials expect people to camp overnight, starting Jan. 19, to get as close as possible to the swearing-in viewing area and parade route.

The next several weeks will be spent figuring out how to change the comprehensive playbook that has been used in the past.

"We have a great blueprint from years past, and we will follow that," the mayor said. "But we will start to make exceptions and deviations because, by everyone's estimation, we will have crowds that will be two, three, maybe even four times as large as the largest inaugural. . . . One of the biggest exceptions would be to open up the Mall."

Officials are talking about opening large sections of the Mall east of the Washington Monument, a space normally used for staging the many components of the inaugural parade, Fenty said. That would make the Mall a viewing area that experts said could accommodate several million people -- significantly more than in the past. Officials have not said where the parade groups will gather instead.


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