By Eric M. Weiss and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 8, 2009
The U.S. Secret Service and regional transportation officials unveiled a plan yesterday to ban personal vehicles from all Potomac River bridge crossings from Virginia into the District and from interstates 395 and 66 inside the Capital Beltway on Inauguration Day.
The plan would also cordon off a large section of downtown Washington from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. to help manage the unprecedented crowds expected.
Some bridges and main thoroughfares with access to the city will remain open, including New York Avenue and the Sousa, Whitney Young and Benning Road bridges.
But Northern Virginia drivers will be able to reach the District only from the Beltway in Maryland, and officials are urging people not to attempt to drive into the city.
The bottom line, officials said, is to keep the Mall, the Capitol and the parade route clear of traffic. Even people who live in the District or can get in from Maryland or Virginia can't get anywhere near the inaugural events or the surrounding downtown area by car. Walking, biking and mass transit -- which is expected to be jammed -- will provide the only access.
From 2 a.m. to 7 p.m. Inauguration Day, the inbound lanes of Potomac River bridges will be reserved for buses, limousines, taxis and other "authorized vehicles." Transportation officials and police in Virginia will divert private vehicles on I-95 headed toward the city onto the Beltway at Springfield; drivers inbound on I-66 will also be diverted onto the Beltway.
The unprecedented wholesale closing of Washington area roads and bridges is necessary because of what officials expect to be record crowds for the inauguration of Barack Obama, who will become the nation's first African American president. Officials estimate that at least 1.5 million and possibly more than 3 million will attend the event.
Officials defended the closings, saying prudence outweighed inconvenience.
The Secret Service has closed many streets in the District that would normally carry traffic from the bridge crossings. As a result, "there isn't anyplace to go," said City Administrator Dan Tangherlini.
Virginia State Police Col. W. Steven Flaherty said personal vehicles will be barred from driving into the District because of restrictions on the other side of the river and because of the likelihood that I-395 and other roadways "would basically become parking lots" if access were not limited.
Moreover, he said, in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency, it would be easier to evacuate people from the city if the roadways were kept as empty as possible.
"Folks have got to make alternate plans, and we need to start making them now," Flaherty said. "As you know, Northern Virginia has a great deal of traffic on a good day. So when we add the numbers of traffic that we may have on Inauguration Day . . . we could have unprecedented traffic congestion unless we all plan, and we all plan together, right now."
He said it was probably the largest operation the agency has undertaken since Sept. 11, 2001.
Also closed to personal vehicles will be the Southeast-Southwest Freeway in the District and much of George Washington Memorial Parkway, which will be closed in both directions between the Beltway and the 14th Street bridge. Reagan National Airport traffic will be diverted onto Route 1 or the southbound GW Parkway.
The HOV lanes on Interstate 95/395 will be HOV-only northbound from 4 a.m. Jan. 17 until 3 a.m. Jan. 20, when they will be open to buses only.
The Memorial Bridge will be the only designated pedestrian crossing over the Potomac. Pedestrians will be allowed on the Key and Chain bridges, but officials said Chain Bridge is not a practical option for people headed downtown. There will also be pedestrian-only routes to the Mall and the swearing-in ceremony, including the Third Street Tunnel.
Motorists coming from Maryland will have relatively few restrictions on driving into the District, not that anyone should expect a quick or easy ride. Although the 11th Street and South Capitol Street bridges will be restricted to buses and authorized vehicles, other key Anacostia River crossings, including the Sousa, Whitney Young and Benning Road bridges, will be open to all traffic.
Maryland officials said they had to balance inaugural traffic needs with those of residents who live just across the border from the District.
"We surround the District on three sides," said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. "If you look at radial routes, we have a significant portion of residents who live inside the Beltway. They need to get out."
He said he didn't think that personal vehicles would clog the roadways.
"Individual vehicles won't be able to get in because of the charter buses," Porcari said. "And if you are thinking of driving a single-passenger vehicle into the District, finding a parking space will be like winning the lottery."
Once in the District, drivers will find a dramatically expanded no-vehicle zone.
In addition to a wide area surrounding the White House, the Capitol and the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, the city has added a rectangle of downtown north of the White House, another tract west of Union Station and much of Southwest for charter bus parking. Only buses, taxis, limousines, other authorized vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians will be allowed in those areas, according to city officials.
These areas include a 50-block section of downtown between 21st Street on the west, 11th Street on the east, P Street on the north and K Street on the south. Other new no-go areas include a section of downtown west of Union Station and much of the area around Washington Navy Yard and the Washington Nationals' stadium.
Traffic restrictions are broader and more widespread in downtown Washington than in the past because city officials have set aside parking for 10,000 charter buses.
Parking and private vehicle access in those areas will be banned from 12:01 a.m. to 7 p.m. Jan. 20. Residents of the restricted zone must show a driver's license to drive into it.
Restaurants and hotels in that area have been preparing plans to bring in supplies and get their employees to work. At Vidalia restaurant on 19th Street NW, executive chef R.J. Cooper said employees have been instructed to take Metro and to allow an extra hour for travel.
The restaurant is purchasing its farm-fresh produce on Saturday and Sunday and working with fishmongers along the Eastern Seaboard to get deliveries through Monday evening before midnight. Cooper and the restaurant's general manager, Michael Nevarez, both of whom live in Virginia, will sleep overnight at the restaurant. Getting to downtown Washington by car from Virginia "is going to be a mess," Cooper said.
At the Mayflower Hotel, all 20 walk-in freezers and refrigerators will be stocked with extra meat and other provisions; the 657-room hotel, which is fully booked Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, is also bringing in a refrigerated trailer that will be parked in the hotel alley, according to General Manager Satinder Palta. The hotel has also laid in 1,200 cases of wine and champagne (valued at about $125,000). And housekeeping will have three times the number of linens and towels it normally needs by Monday, Jan. 19, because it won't be able to receive deliveries Tuesday from its central laundry in Crystal City. That comes out to 7,000 bath towels alone.
"It's going to be a very creative experience for these hotels," said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. "They have to be completely staffed for all three shifts."
Porcari said that special inaugural ticket packages on MARC trains are sold out on the Penn and Camden lines but that 700 tickets are available on the Brunswick Line. Maryland will also run transit buses from park-and-ride lots across the region to Metrorail stations; 9,000 tickets are available.
The Smithsonian and Archives-Navy Memorial stations will be closed all of Inauguration Day. Metro plans to have special priority bus routes running. It is also running extra rail cars.
In Virginia, officials are trying to figure out ways to open park-and-ride lots so residents can take buses into the city for the festivities. They are also talking to suburban bus systems about providing service.
Regional officials are trying to plan for different contingencies, such as a snowstorm. In Virginia, road officials will treat all roads and commuter lots regardless of the weather forecast and will have 40 safety patrols and seven tow trucks in position.
Staff writers Sandhya Somashekhar and Theola Labbé-
DeBose contributed to this report.