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Where Do You Park 10,000 Charter Buses?
Getting Riders to Swearing-In A Trickier Puzzle for Planners

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Transportation planners for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration say an estimated 10,000 charter buses will arrive in the Washington area for the event, posing what they say would be an unprecedented logistical nightmare.

The estimate is based on bookings, queries from operators and projections of crowd size from D.C. officials, according to Eron Shosteck, a senior vice president of the American Bus Association, which represents 800 independent bus operators. That number does not include smaller buses or passenger vans organized by churches and other groups.

The sheer size of the charter bus contingent, carrying as many as a half-million people, has an enormous cascading effect on the rest of transportation planning. Widespread street closures downtown will prevent charter buses from dropping passengers off at events, so officials need to figure out where buses will park. The parking locations, in turn, will affect where and how many people squeeze on to packed Metro trains.

City officials say the number of buses could exceed 10,000. More than 5,000 passenger carrier companies with more than 23,000 vehicles have interstate operating authority within 1,000 miles of Washington, from Maine to east of the Mississippi to Miami, according to City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. The city's call center staff began contacting hundreds of bus companies over the weekend to ask about bookings, he said.

By the end of the week, Tangherlini hopes a statistical sampling will come up with "what percentage of that 23,000 number" is heading to Washington, he said.

"It's best in planning for this event to try to plan for bigger than anything we've planned for before," he said.

Officials are estimating that 2 million to 4 million people will attend the inauguration.

Metro can't accommodate everyone, so officials also have to prepare for others to walk to events or set up shuttle bus service from outlying areas to downtown.

In addition to traditional parking venues, including RFK Stadium and FedEx Field, organizers have identified more than 100 parking locations for charter buses in the region, including shopping malls and college campuses. Charter buses don't fit inside parking garages, so they need to be on surface lots.

Visitors could be shuttling in from as far away as Six Flags America in Bowie and the racetrack at Laurel Park. Closer-in spots under consideration include Wolf Trap in Vienna and Arlington National Cemetery. Officials are also looking at the Carter Barron Tennis Center, and East Potomac Park and Hains Point as well as parking around Nationals Park.

Bus-only lanes on major thoroughfares have been suggested as a way to speed shuttle service through traffic. But that raises additional complications: The city and Metro don't have the staff to police intersections along say, Connecticut Avenue, to enforce the rules.

"Finding a big piece of tarmac to park buses isn't the main issue," Tangherlini said. "Getting people from that chunk of pavement to where they want to be -- that's where the big issue is going to be."

Additionally, there will be last-minute rolling street closures dictated by the Secret Service, not to mention the possibility of snow and freezing weather.

"I cannot recall anything being as challenging from a logistical standpoint as transportation for the inaugural of President Obama," said Shosteck, who has lived in Washington for nearly 40 years.

For now, transportation and business officials are anticipating 10,000 buses -- which if stretched from end to end would circle the Capital Beltway and then stretch to Baltimore, according to Greater Washington Board of Trade President Jim Dinegar.

"So the logistical issues associated with this are huge," Dinegar said yesterday.

Some organizers for the Million Man March, held Oct. 16, 1995, predicted that 11,000 charter buses would come to Washington. The march, a gathering of African American men from across the country, is often used as a benchmark because of the large crowd it drew. But an analysis by the American Bus Association estimates there were 2,500 buses, including school buses, Shosteck said. Many buses parked at RFK Stadium. With a high temperature of 62 degrees, many people walked to the Mall. Metro also ran some shuttle service from the Stadium-Armory and Fort Totten Metro stations to the Mall.

Inaugural planners say the Million Man March is not particularly relevant for planning purposes because of drastically heightened security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

City and regional officials will not make their final decisions about transportation plans until about Dec. 20, a month before the inauguration.

Metro will play a critical role. Calling it the biggest challenge in the 32-year-old agency's history, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told a Metro inaugural planning group last week to prepare for "everything that could possibly happen" with crowds five to 10 times as large as Metro's typical ridership of 500,000 for the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall.

The transit agency will run an unprecedented 15 hours of consecutive rush-hour rail service on Inauguration Day. Even so, Metro officials say they can accommodate only 4,700 buses, or roughly 235,000 people, at Metrorail station parking lots, according to senior planner Jim Hughes. More than that would overwhelm the system. Although Metro has about 60,000 parking spaces at 42 stations, charter buses take up two regular spaces, and Metro also wants to keep spaces open for the region's nearly 6 million residents.

If Metro takes 4,700 busloads of people, that means city and regional officials need to find parking for the remaining 5,300 buses.

The District is hoping to park as many buses as possible in the city, preferably within walking distance of the Mall, Tangherlini said.

The uncertainty is worrying bus operators.

"There is a dearth of information that transportation planners and bus operators need to help get tourists here for this historic event," said Shosteck, of the bus association. "We're understanding that this is an unprecedented logistical challenge and about getting people to a milestone event in U.S. history, but we're hoping to get some answers so that we can convey that to our operators."

Metro officials want charter bus parking to be spread across the region, with one company directing all of the buses to arrive at staged intervals at designated parking lots.

Tangherlini is not so sure that "precise minute-by-minute" scripting will be workable. "We need something much simpler, more robust, something that can stand up to the vagaries of the weather, the vagaries of traffic, and rolling security."

Metro points out that if too many buses are parked at RFK Stadium and FedEx Field at the same time, for example, the nearby Metro stations and the Blue and Orange lines will not be able to safely accommodate the crush of people.

At RFK Stadium, for example, about 1,200 buses were parked for the dedication of the World War II Memorial in 2004. But now the city is pressing for close to capacity, 1,750 buses, Tangherlini said.

That's 87,500 people. The Stadium-Armory Metro station can handle 13,000 an hour.

Aware of Metrorail's constraints, Tangherlini said, the city is considering bus service between RFK and the Mall, similar to the arrangement for the World War II Memorial dedication.

Staff writers Michael E. Ruane and Brigid Schulte and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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