Have a Plan For Tuesday? Keep Thinking.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Have we scared people away from the inauguration with forecasts of here-to-eternity train rides and winter hikes as cruel as the Retreat from Moscow?

I doubt it.

A more likely scenario is that sometime between 11:30 a.m. and noon Tuesday, the many thousands on the Mall for the swearing-in are going to stop shifting their tired feet and stop yelling about the long trip downtown. They'll get real quiet for about 60 seconds -- it's a short oath -- and then they'll get real loud. They'll look around at each other and think they were all pretty smart for making the effort.

They're coming.

I've spent most of the past few weeks answering letters from readers concerned about being in the right place at the right time to catch history. When should they leave home? Will they find parking at the Shady Grove Station? Is there a bus from the neighborhood? Which bridge is best for walking? If they get in, how will they get out?

D.C. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who has been so closely involved in the planning for the long weekend's events, says he has no idea how many people will try to get in and out of Washington. He'll tell us Wednesday, he says.

Didn't the traffic and transit plan itself guarantee that people would have a hard time getting around, no matter how many arrive? He answered by asking me what else the planners could have done.

Actually, I don't know. I think a crowd of 2 million is a reasonable estimate for them to work with, given that no one has a really solid number. Based on that, the inauguration traffic planners did something akin to what firefighters often do against an out-of-control forest fire. The firefighters use a controlled burn to clear a zone and deny more fuel to the advancing inferno.

In our case, what planners did was create a car-free zone to block private cars from overwhelming the heart of Washington.

Neither tactic is pretty. The controlled burn deliberately destroys a swath of forest. The car barrier itself pretty much guarantees that we'll endure intense traffic congestion in many areas beyond the barrier and that the trains will be extremely crowded, no matter how many millions show up on the Mall, or don't.

The transportation plan for the first season at Nationals Park worked well in limiting congestion. But it worked well in part because planners approached their task assuming that every game at the new stadium on South Capitol Street would be a sellout. That proved not to be the case, but if the planners had gone the other way -- low-balling the crowd size and diminishing the traffic-control plan accordingly -- they would have had trouble ratcheting up the restrictions over the summer to clear up the mess they had created.

If the inauguration congestion doesn't reach the level some fear, restrictions could be adjusted. For example, if there is no massive exodus from Washington on Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Transportation could back off the plan to maintain HOV restrictions on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway until 9 p.m.

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