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.

In addition, Metro trains are expected to be packed. They can carry about 1.2 million people to the inauguration if all goes well, Tangherlini said. Metro will be running rush-hour train service and expects to offer frequent shuttles on special bus-only lanes for residents and visitors.

"I'm at 1.7 million already," Tangherlini said, counting the Metro and charter bus passengers. "And I haven't included walkers, drivers, railroaders, Greyhounders, people who already live here."

Not to mention airline passengers. Well more than 400,000 people could fly into the Washington region's three main airports in the days before the inauguration, according to airline figures.

Dulles International and Reagan National airports could receive about 300,000 passengers between Jan. 16 and 19, if all scheduled flights are full, said Rob Yingling of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, citing figures from the Official Airline Guide.

Officials at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport said they had no estimates on inauguration travelers. But about 30,000 people fly into BWI on an average day, and nearly 40,000 fly in daily during holiday periods, said Jonathan O. Dean, communications manager for the Maryland Aviation Administration.

"Flights under existing schedules are near capacity," said David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association. He said airlines are planning to add about 100 incoming and outgoing flights at the three airports from Jan. 15 to 22, which could carry about 5,000 extra people on round trips. And some airlines will use larger-than-usual planes on scheduled runs.

However, those numbers can't simply be added to the 1.7 million figure for Metro and charter buses, since many airline passengers might ride Metro to the inauguration. And of course, not every air traveler will attend the festivities.

MARC and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains have a firmer number: They plan to carry about 50,000 people to Washington on the morning of Jan. 20 on reservation-only trains.

As for Amtrak, reservations for the inaugural period have soared, spokeswoman Karina Romero said. But calculating the total arriving is difficult. Overall, 44,562 tickets have been reserved on lines that serve Washington during inauguration week, she said. But that includes trips to and from Washington, as well as a small number of passengers who will disembark in other cities, including New York.

Trains aren't sold out. And Amtrak might expand service. "It's a moving target," Romero said.

Tangherlini offered a rough estimate of 75,000 Amtrak passengers.

Officials said that, despite their best efforts, many factors are difficult to calculate. One is the number of people driving to the city in the days before the inauguration.

John Townsend, public affairs manager for AAA in the D.C. region, said about three-quarters of tourists visiting Washington typically arrive by car. He wouldn't hazard a guess as to how many would get behind the wheel for the Obama inauguration.

"We think it's going to be a massive gridlock," he said.

Intercity bus companies said most of their ticket sales are last-minute, making it difficult to project how many passengers they will transport to Washington.

"We have data for Thanksgiving we collect from year to year, so we can make projections. . . . This, we don't have anything to go on," said Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines.

He said that the company's 55 charter buses had been reserved to take groups to the inauguration. "This is a phenomenon we've never seen," he said.

City officials are trying to estimate how many churches and schools might use their own buses to carry Obama supporters to Washington.

And the temperature could be a critical factor: A mild day could bring out tens of thousands of local residents, and snow, rain or bitter cold would be likely to discourage crowds.

"Our biggest collective unknown is the weather," Tangherlini said.

Finally, some of those who originally planned to attend the inauguration might be dissuaded by the predictions of traffic chaos. Residents of Baltimore and Philadelphia might decide to catch a glimpse of Obama at recently announced events in those cities in the run-up to the inauguration rather than trek to the nation's capital.

Because of the variables, officials said, they have to be ready to handle a far larger crowd than might materialize.

Chris Geldart, who heads the D.C. area office for the Department of Homeland Security, said he thought turnout would probably be 1.5 million to 2 million, "because it's winter, and people getting in and out is going to be difficult."

"But, hey, we may see up to 4 million," he said. "So we'd better be prepared."

In the end, officials might never know how many people turn out. The U.S. Park Police have been barred from providing crowd estimates since they were threatened with a lawsuit for an apparent undercount at the Million Man March in 1995.

Sal Lauro, acting assistant chief of the Park Police, declined to give a number of how many people could fit on the Mall, which his agency guards.

"I try not to even look at that," he said.

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