Jan. 20 Jams Could Start Out in Suburbs

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

With extensive road and bridge closures sharply curtailing personal vehicle travel into the District, Inauguration Day's predicted traffic nightmares could be pushed into the Washington suburbs, with motorists jockeying for spaces at outlying Metro stations and visitors vying for spaces on trains into the city.

And as visitors flood the region, workers in the suburbs will have to fight the current just to get to work. As for running to the drugstore or doing other errands, forget it.

"I think anyplace there can be a jam, there will be a jam," said Montgomery County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).

Suburban Hospital spokeswoman Ronna Borenstein is hosting two co-workers at her Chevy Chase home for two days to ensure that they -- with the 1,400 other employees of the Bethesda hospital -- can get to work on Inauguration Day.

The day will be all-hands-on-deck at Suburban, Montgomery's designated trauma center, and employees have been told to expect a busy day. The hospital is running a shuttle from the Bethesda Metro station for employees able to squeeze onto trains.

Still, Borenstein said she expects some employees not to make it in, so others will do jobs they ordinarily wouldn't, such as delivering food trays.

U.S. Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D), Gerald E. Connolly (D) and Frank R. Wolf (R) of Virginia announced that an agreement had been reached among their state, the District and the U.S. Secret Service to provide shuttle bus service to get medical personnel to hospitals on Inauguration Day. Virginia will pick up the tab.

The stations at the ends of the Metro lines, such as Greenbelt, New Carrollton, Vienna and Franconia-Springfield, are expected to be popular with visitors. The same is true for Metro parking.

"By 7:45 on a regular workday, most of the spots are filled. . . . All these people are going to show up at roughly the same time going to roughly the same place," Knapp said.

The areas around the stations could emerge as main traffic congestion points as motorists scramble for spaces when the lots open at 3:30 a.m. And nearby neighborhoods "may be in for a surprise" if Metro lots get full and drivers start searching there for parking, said Steven Taubenkibel, a Metro spokesman.

The Secret Service and regional transportation officials have decided to close all Virginia bridges across the Potomac River, Interstate 395 and Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway to personal vehicles. Much of downtown Washington will be cordoned off to manage the unprecedented crowds expected. The 11th Street and Frederick Douglass Memorial bridges, used by people coming in from Maryland, will also be closed.

"This will push congestion to the periphery," said Robert Puentes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "There's a real question what will happen. This is not the 1950s, where you have a dense inner core with lessening density the farther you go out."

Even with the Metrorail system running a rush-hour schedule starting at 4 a.m., it can carry only 120,000 passengers an hour.

Then there are the workers who use the system to crisscross the region from home to work. A worker who lives in Prince William County and takes Interstate 395 to get to Alexandria will have to find an alternate route. The same is true for, say, a Fairfax County resident trying to get to work in Rosslyn, because I-66 will be closed inside the Beltway.

Pablo Salas, who lives in Potomac and works in Old Town Alexandria, said he is going to leave his car at home and take Metro, even though it will require that he get a ride to the station, take two trains and walk 10 blocks.

Asked if he was worried about crowded trains, he just laughed. "I'm from Buenos Aires, where I rode the trains for 20 years and it was so crowded you couldn't lift your arm,'' he said. "It will be like remembering old times."

William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, said that although some businesses will be closed, those that will remain open are organizing van pools, co-worker slumber parties and shuttles. Cots have been sold out in the region for months.

The Old Town Ann Taylor store will be staffed by employees who can walk to work. And at the Hotel Monaco on King Street, managers are reserving five of the hotel's 241 rooms for employees who live far away, General Manager Nick Gregory said. Gregory, who lives in Burke, plans to get up at 3 a.m. and drive in.

For hotel guests, two vans will shuttle between the hotel and the King Street Metro, and the hotel has rented two Ford Expeditions in case guests need rides to the Potomac bridges, from which they can walk to the inaugural events.

Yes, the whole thing is a hassle, but "it's fun -- there's so much energy and excitement," Gregory said.

At the Hyatt Dulles, General Manager Michael Session said guests will be driven to the airport to catch buses into the District. They will also be given the phone number for a limousine service; limousines and taxis can cross the bridges.

Tina Carter, who also works in Old Town, said she plans to catch all the excitement from TV, in the warmth of her Bethesda home. She said those in her office who can walk to work will cover the office while others, like her, will telecommute.

"Once they started closing the bridges, it started sounding like it was going to be crazy,'' she said.

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