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Roads, Trains Can't Handle Jan. 20 Droves
With Street and Bridge Closures, Expect 'Long Lines, Long Walks'

By Lena H. Sun and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 15, 2008

Even if only half of the projected 2 million to 4 million people show up for next month's presidential inauguration, the Washington region's roadways and transit systems will be too pressed to handle the crush, planners say.

Officials are working out details of their transportation plan for the event, but the capacity of the area's transit and road infrastructure, combined with strict security, means residents and potential visitors need to have realistic expectations about how quickly they will be able to move around on Jan. 20, officials said.

People who live near the Arlington Cemetery Metro station, for example, and are planning to take the subway to the swearing-in ceremony might want to think about walking, because trains will be packed. On foot, the three-mile trek from the station to the Reflecting Pool at the Capitol should take about an hour.

And anyone planning to drive in from Virginia might consider a boat: the Roosevelt, Memorial and inbound 14th Street bridges will be restricted to buses and authorized vehicles. Maryland and D.C. officials are also considering bus-only corridors.

Even for those who can get to town or who live there, moving about is going to be dicey: Widespread street closures will severely restrict driving, parking and taxi availability, and delays are likely to be extensive. City officials are working to designate pedestrian-only streets.

But getting into town might be easier than getting out: If 1 million people try to board the subway at the same time after the main festivities end, it could take more than eight hours to move everyone.

In other words, consider staying home in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn.

"It's going to be a lot of walking, a lot of waiting, and you might not get too close to the president," City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said.

Of course, plenty of people can't stay home -- they'll have to work. At the 1,316-room Wardman Park Marriott in Northwest, the District's largest hotel, employees can sleep on cots. Homeland Security employees will be sleeping in a trailer.

Transportation experts are not mincing words.

"If millions of people are coming to the National Mall, Metro can't handle everyone. It's impossible," agency spokeswoman Candace Smith said. People should expect "long lines, long walks, and they need to make decisions about what they're willing to put up with."

A huge section of the District should be made a no-drive zone, said Metro Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, who also serves on the Arlington County Board. "You'd be nuts to try," he said. "I would discourage anyone from driving into the city."

Zimmerman wants alternatives to Metro, such as park-and-ride lots along Interstate 95 for special bus service.

Amtrak and airlines are adding trains and flights, although seats were available late last week. The additional flights represent a fairly hefty increase, officials said. Seats are added when reservation systems sense increased demand. Southwest, United Airlines and US Airways, one of the largest carriers at Reagan National Airport, have added flights and, in some cases, switched to bigger planes.

According to reservation data, the biggest travel days for airlines are going to be the Saturday before and the day after the inauguration. For Amtrak and local commuter rail services, the busiest times are expected to be Jan. 19 and 20.

Officials at National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports said they had not made special arrangements for parking and are urging travelers to check the airports' parking hotlines and Web sites for availability.

Car rental companies have been scrambling to get enough vehicles to Washington area airports to handle the increase in reservations, said Paula Rivera of Hertz, who declined to provide specifics, citing competitive reasons.

Thousands of passengers have booked sleeper-car berths on Amtrak trains heading to Washington from Atlanta, New Orleans and Chicago, but some seats were still available as of late last week, spokeswoman Karina Romero said.

Amtrak expects Jan. 20 to be its busiest day of the week. For those who aren't planning to spend the night in Washington, a train leaving Atlanta the night before the swearing-in is scheduled to arrive at 10:10 a.m. at Union Station, a short walk to the Mall.

Amtrak is monitoring reservations to see where and when to add trains or cars, Romero said. Thanksgiving is the company's busiest period of the year. "But on Thanksgiving, everyone is heading everywhere," Romero said. "During the inauguration, everyone is heading to D.C."

Virginia Railway Express and MARC commuter trains, which do not operate on holidays, will provide service on Inauguration Day.

Regional transportation officials say they are meeting several times a day to work out a plan. D.C. officials say they have found parking in the city to accommodate half of the 10,000 charter buses expected by the Secret Service and will provide specifics this week. The goal is to park them within walking distance of the Mall.

About 4,700 buses are likely to be parked elsewhere at Metrorail-accessible locations, such as RFK Stadium in the District, FedEx Field in Landover and some Metro stations with surface lots. (Bus companies can go to http://www.dc.govto obtain the required city permits; they can reserve parking at RFK Stadium at http://2009inauguration.clickandpark.com. Bus companies can also go to that site and link to Metro to buy advance subway passes for their passengers. Mayoral spokeswoman Mafara Hobson stressed the importance of permits for buses parking in the District: "No permit, no parking, no party." People using these charter buses would need to take Metrorail or shuttle buses to the Mall.)

Let's say half of the charter bus passengers will be able to ride the subway. If 1,000 shuttle buses are available, they could make five trips each to move the remaining 5,000 busloads of people. If each round trip from the Mall to a parking site takes an hour, for example, it would take five hours to move all passengers.

Neighborhood parking rules and meter enforcement in the District will be suspended Saturday through Inauguration Day, but they will be affected by street closures, which won't be announced until late this month or the first week in January. Parking garages outside the security cordon will be open at the discretion of their operators, Tangherlini said.

Bicycles will not be allowed within the still-to-be determined security cordon, said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. His organization is working with security and transportation organizers to set up bicycle valet parking in three areas just outside the cordon, possibly near the Jefferson Memorial, at Connecticut and K streets and near the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station. Metro officials had not decided whether to allow bikes on trains Jan. 20.

After the morning crush, Metro is expecting rushes after the noon swearing-in ceremony and after the parade, about 6 p.m.

The most the subway system can carry is about 120,000 people per hour, officials say. And that doesn't factor in the inevitable delays caused by out-of-towners confused about how to use the system. That number also assumes "nobody gets sick, no one jams the door and all the people cooperate," Metro Board Member Peter Benjamin said. "What do you think the odds are for that to happen if we get 4 million people?"

Glitches can be caused by a number of other factors. Metro has just two tracks, like a two-lane highway. When trains are taken out of service, delays can be lengthy. Doors often malfunction because passengers mistakenly think they are like elevator doors and try to hold them open. And if a passenger becomes sick and can't move, emergency personnel must be called and passengers have to get off the train.

Philadelphia's main transit agency was overwhelmed by crowds during a parade and celebration Oct. 31, after the Phillies won the World Series, and Metro is taking notes. The parade was scheduled for noon downtown, followed by 3 p.m. events at sports complexes several miles away.

By 7:30 a.m. that day, regional rail trains heading downtown were at capacity, according to a report by transit officials. At 8:30 a.m., extra trains were put into operation, and officials warned of one-hour delays. By 9:30, riders were told that trains would not stop at some stations and to use buses. By noon, media outlets were telling passengers that if they weren't already in Center City, they should stay home and watch the parade on television.

Philadelphia officials suspended all inbound regional rail service as of 1 p.m. to provide trains for post-parade crowds, and they cut service to some areas.

Hundreds of thousands of people were stranded, including many parents who had taken their children out of school for the occasion.

The city's transit agency handled one-third more than its daily capacity of 1 million trips, spokesman Richard Maloney said, "but we still disappointed hundreds of thousands of people who were hot and angry. It was like going to the department store, and Santa wasn't there."

Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Nikita Stewart and researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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