By Eric M. Weiss and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 9, 2009
Never mind that Virginia was the birthplace of eight U.S. presidents. Or that it was here that representative democracy took its first fledgling steps in the New World. When Virginians learned that the U.S. Secret Service and other top officials had decided to bar personal vehicles from every bridge from the commonwealth into the District on Inauguration Day, many felt the underlying message to them was this: Drop dead.
Or: Stay home.
Or: If you're going to try to come and see the first African American sworn in as president of the United States, well, good luck.
"First was the hysteria of announcing over 4 million people might be flooding the Mall. Later, they amend that number by half. Then they announce there will be no parking, few toilets and that everyone will be standing and waiting for hours. Then they tell people not to bring children and, finally, they close all the bridges," fumed Virginian Holly Kenney. "Do they think we're dense? Clearly, the public is no longer welcome."
But to some business and political leaders in the region, the plan represents more than a snub. They are concerned that the unprecedented closings and restrictions will turn away visitors, hurt businesses and employees, and tip the balance too far toward security over access.
The plan unveiled by the Secret Service and area transportation officials Wednesday closes all Virginia bridges across the Potomac and interstates 395 and 66 inside the Beltway to personal vehicles. It also cordons off a large section of downtown Washington to help manage the unprecedented crowds expected. Maryland, in contrast, has no planned road closures.
"The Secret Service, they're insane," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-Alexandria). "This is security on steroids. They are imposing major obstacles on people who have a right to be there for the inauguration."
But even Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) signed off on the plan.
"I think it's a good idea," Kaine said yesterday in a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. "Closing 66 and 395 . . . was the right thing to do for the logistics to make the inauguration work."
Malcolm Wiley, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said 58 agencies were involved in crafting the security plan, including representatives from 15 agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District who participated in the transportation and traffic subcommittee.
"Never, in putting together the plan, was a thought given to keep people from coming. It is that they be safe," Wiley said. "We are not restricting anyone from coming. . . . The only thing we restricted is personal vehicles."
But some Virginians were taking it personally.
"I think that shutting Virginia off from the party is all just an old Civil War snub," Rocky Semmes wrote on a community e-mail list. "The Yankees are no quicker to forget the past than are any of the dyed-in-the-wool Rebels."
Officials said the decision had nothing to do with the Virginia's Confederate past. It didn't even have anything to do with the cultural tension between the perceived conservative Old Dominion and the lefty Free State. In fact, the idea for shutting down the bridges to personal cars came from Virginia's own Department of Transportation, local governments and the Virginia State Police.
"This was not a North-South vengeance thing or anything like that. We're not bringing out Lee's Army," said Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police. "It's really about geography. There's a river. The only way across is a bridge. And once you cross the 14th Street Bridge, within a stoplight or two, you're going to be inside the security zone. There's nowhere for you to go."
Geller said Virginia transportation officials took one look at the bridges and imagined the worst: gridlock stretching for miles and miles and miles. "This was not an easy decision," she said. "But the fear was: If we let cars cross the bridge, then they get stuck. People could just turn off their cars and park and walk into the District. And what if one person came back at 3 p.m. and another person at 4 a.m.? No one could move. Could you imagine the backlog?"
Kaine said there was consensus among area governments, state officials and emergency officials that "private vehicles would bring the whole thing to a snarl."
But the scope of the closures took many by surprise.
"This is a one-size-fits-all solution that needs to be customized," said James C. Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "How are health workers supposed to get around? Who will make the beds and pour the coffee? We've got to put our best foot forward for tourists, but our health is important, too."
He suggested that Metro run shuttle buses from midnight to 4 a.m. for hospitality workers and that Congress pony up $4 million so everyone can ride free on Metro to ease lines.
In coffee shops, phone conversations and Internet discussions, many Virginians spent yesterday wondering whether they could ride Segways (yes, over the bridges, not in the secure zone around the Mall), where to park their bikes (the bike valet at the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin), contemplating the money they could earn with a pedicab service or lamenting the lack of ferry service. But mostly they vented at the perceived slight.
"Don Aplin is wondering if they'll mine the harbor for Obama-day now that they've decided to close the bridges to Virginia," the Alexandria resident wrote on his Facebook page, referring to the bridge closure decision as some kind of spooky mystery out of "The X-Files."
"I knew you Virginians weren't to be trusted!" a friend shot back.
They wondered why they were being left out, especially this year, when Virginia, with its loaded past, became a key swing state, voted Democratic for the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson and helped deliver victory to Barack Obama.
"It does seem a little over the top to shut down all the bridges from Virginia into the city," Alexandria resident Paul Connolly said. "It's a bit of a symbolic snub to the bluest corner of the state that our president-elect fought so hard to win. We even have two Democrat senators now, and our governor is going to chair the DNC. Harumph!"
Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said the inaugural ceremonies will balance security and openness.
"We had to rely on the expert advice of all the transportation and law enforcement officials who put the plan together," she said. "Obviously there are capacity issues, security, safety and movement issues, but we are confident that what we will be able to achieve [is] an inauguration that unprecedented amounts of Americans can watch on the Mall or go to free events in ways we haven't seen before. Even though it may be a little time-consuming, people who are determined to be here in person will do it."
That didn't convince Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations in the District.
"It's a bad start for this administration to put security concerns over access," he said. "We are the capital of the free world. What is the message of closing all the bridges?"
Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), a member of the Metro board, said that "several million will descend on the Washington metro region. We need to ensure, protect and make certain that our residents and others can feel comfortable."
Euille encouraged area residents to take transit; he, however, plans to spend Monday night with friends in the District.
Alexandria resident Phil Hocker, 64, is trying to figure out a way to get his family to the inauguration and was furious about the announced restrictions.
"The Secret Service's plan to keep the inauguration secret is succeeding," he said. He also blames the Obama transition team for not putting its foot down with security officials. "If the motto of the campaign was 'Yes we can!' the motto of the inauguration is 'No you can't.' "
But Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Metro board, said the closures are designed to move as many people as possible, not to keep people from coming.
He referred to the daily commuter fight to get into the city that can be disrupted by a minor accident, or, this week, by the closures near the Hay-Adams Hotel, where the Obamas are staying.
"It barely works in a normal workday, right?" said Zimmerman, who also is a member of the Arlington County Board. "If they didn't do this, nobody would be moving."