By Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The White House announced yesterday that it will grant emergency funding to the District to help with soaring costs for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, while forecasters said snow could add to the day's complications.
The National Weather Service, in its first detailed look at the possible weather for Jan. 20, is calling for a mostly cloudy day but predicted a 30 percent chance of snow. The same is true for Sunday, when inauguration festivities open with the Lincoln Memorial music extravaganza, the Weather Service said.
The emergency declaration -- based on crowd projections, not the weather -- came less than a week after D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) asked for the aid, citing estimates of 1.5 million to 2 million people expected to attend, according to a Bush administration spokesman. The city has projected its tab for the inauguration at $47 million, about three times as much as Congress has given the District.
"The [Fenty] administration is pleased that the White House has supported our request," said Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
Virginia and Maryland have also asked for federal funding but have not gotten responses, officials in those states said. Virginia has estimated it will spend $16 million and Maryland, $12 million -- major expenses given the economic slowdown.
Regional officials acknowledged yesterday that they are struggling to figure out how many people will actually come. Officials believe the inauguration of Obama, the country's first African American president, will draw more than the record 1.2 million who flocked to Lyndon Johnson's swearing-in. In addition, the mega-concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday could draw a half-million people or more, District officials say.
The White House statement said that President Bush "declared an emergency exists in the District of Columbia" linked to the inauguration. It said the city would get federal money for protective measures "undertaken to save lives and protect public health and safety."
Officials said that the move reflected a post-Hurricane Katrina reform that allows the White House to predesignate areas that could become disasters, such as cities in the path of a hurricane.
Yesterday was the first time the emergency declaration had been made in advance of a political event, said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman. Officials emphasized, however, that they were not anticipating a crisis.
"With the potential crowds coming here, this is a very prudent measure to take," said Chris Geldart, head of the Homeland Security office for the National Capital Region. It was not clear how much federal money the District would receive.
The District, Maryland and Virginia had previously asked Congress to reimburse them $75 million for their inauguration expenses. But any congressional appropriation probably wouldn't come for weeks or months.
Despite months of planning, officials acknowledged yesterday that they were still uncertain how chaotic the District will be on Inauguration Day.
More than 3,000 charter buses have registered for parking permits in the city that day -- twice as many as Washington has ever had for a single event, said D.C. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. But that number is well below the 10,000 charter buses District officials had been expecting, authorities acknowledged.
Fenty said that over the past few days, the number of buses registering has skyrocketed. "It's almost gone vertical," he said, adding that many more might sign up before Thursday's deadline.
Still, after checking recently with a number of companies, city officials now believe fewer tour buses than expected will arrive -- about 6,000 or 7,000 -- in addition to an unknown number of church and school buses. And Tangherlini noted that people could decide to organize and hire buses once they "realize that's a great way to get in from Virginia."
Bridges from Virginia into the capital are going to be closed for much of the day, and inbound lanes on interstates 395 and 66 will be shut down to avoid what officials worry could be total gridlock.
Charter-bus industry officials said the number of buses registering for District permits does not necessarily indicate that fewer vehicles are coming. Some bus companies have tags that allow them to operate from state to state and would not need to register for a District permit, according to Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, which represents 65 percent of charter buses on the road.
Other charter bus companies are planning to drop passengers at suburban Metrorail stations.
The governors of Maryland and Virginia said at a news conference yesterday that suburbanites can find ways to attend the inauguration despite the widespread closure of streets and bridges. But they warned attendees to plan carefully.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) urged people to stay off Interstate 495 if they were not going to the inauguration. "You cannot close 495," he said. However, he said, authorities would be monitoring the Beltway, and they could temporarily close exits to allow traffic to clear.
Tangherlini said that if traffic wasn't too horrendous, some bridges into the District could be reopened to cars earlier than scheduled.
Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.