Inauguration Day Crowd Estimate Reduced by Half

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008

Officials are casting doubt on an early projection that 4 million to 5 million people could jam downtown Washington on Inauguration Day, saying it is more likely that the crowd will be about half that size.

D.C. authorities said the earlier estimates, provided by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), were based on speculation surrounding the historic nature of the swearing-in of Barack Obama as the nation's first African American president. After weeks of checking with charter bus companies, airlines and other sources, they're reassessing.

"It's more of an art than a science," City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said. "The fact is, earlier it was speculation. Now we're beginning to flesh it out and what the physical capacities of the system are."

The Secret Service has dismissed the high-end estimates of 4 million to 5 million people. But there is universal agreement among security officials and planners that massive numbers of people will flock to the swearing-in of Obama (D), who had drawn huge campaign crowds.

Turnout could easily reach 2 million, officials said, far outstripping the 400,000 who attended the 2005 inauguration of President Bush. Although it is possible that 5 million people will descend on the area in the days leading up to the inauguration, it appears unlikely that trains and local roads could get them all to the Mall and parade route Jan. 20, officials said.

Jawauna Greene, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said that inaugural planning committees had initially considered up to 6 million attendees. Lately, she said, D.C. officials had scaled back their estimates to about 2 million. "But there's no telling," she said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the most recent estimates she has gotten from the Presidential Inaugural Committee and federal and local officials project between 1.5 million and 3 million people.

In an interview, Tangherlini said the initial estimates were rather crude, but he would not discuss the latest projections. Early on, some officials looked at simply how many people could squeeze onto the Mall. (About 3 million, Tangherlini said.)

Officials also reasoned that "this thing could be two, three, four times bigger than what we normally see," Tangherlini said. "And they took 'normally see' to be Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration," which drew a record 1.2 million people in 1965.

With a lack of solid information -- the Secret Service and the Presidential Inaugural Committee declined to make their estimates public -- colossal numbers continue to be bandied about. Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz, head of the D.C. National Guard, said at a news conference Thursday that the crowd estimate was 4 million.

His source? "That is the number I have heard on the television," he said.

The D.C. government recently conducted a telephone and Internet survey of charter bus companies east of the Mississippi River, which concluded that about half of their 23,000 vehicles are booked for the inauguration, Tangherlini said. Estimated number of passengers: 500,000.

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