Traffic Plan a Blueprint for Future, Officials Say

Yvonne Jones of Houston talks on the phone with a US Airways representative after waiting for five hours at Reagan National. Many people missed flights because of long lines.
Yvonne Jones of Houston talks on the phone with a US Airways representative after waiting for five hours at Reagan National. Many people missed flights because of long lines. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Lena H. Sun and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 22, 2009

Despite some glitches yesterday for inaugural attendees trying to leave the District, regional transportation officials said they were generally pleased with how their inaugural plans worked out and hope to use the experience for future events.

The few glitches demonstrated the importance of communication among agencies and with the public, as well as last-minute flexibility and patience, officials said.

"For the most part, people were prepared and able to adapt to evolving situations and recover," said City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. "Which is key to success, because when you're moving that many vehicles, something will happen. That's guaranteed."

Local, state and federal officials spent weeks developing a complex transportation plan that closed major highways, all bridges from Virginia into the District, and huge sections of downtown Washington to regular traffic. Maryland and Virginia transportation officials were involved at a level not seen in previous inaugurations, with Virginia paying for D.C.-bound bus service. The goal was to encourage attendees to leave their cars at home and use transit to prevent gridlock and keep vehicles away from the vast secure zones in the city.

Metro, which was under the greatest pressure, carried out its role of transporting the majority of the crowd with relatively few breakdowns, given the unprecedented number of riders, officials said. The agency set a ridership record with 1,120,000 trips on the rail system, which does not include the thousands of passengers who streamed through the fare gates without paying Tuesday night as Metro tried to speed crowds through the system. The system also made 423,000 bus trips and 1,721 MetroAccess trips for a total of 1,544,721 trips, the highest ridership day in the transit authority's history.

Metro opened two hours early, at 4 a.m., and closed late, at 2 a.m. Parking lots at end-of-the-line stations opened at 3:30 a.m., and several were filled within two hours. On Inauguration Day, the system ran nearly 20 percent more rail cars than during a typical rush hour, more than ever before.

When cars waiting to get into suburban lots started backing up on local roads, Metro let motorists through without paying. As the line for riders to get into the New Carrollton station snaked back into the parking lot, Metro ran special shuttle buses to ferry them to the next rail station. When large numbers of wheelchair users showed up at Federal Triangle, threatening to overload the designated downtown station for the disabled, personnel dispatched Metrobuses specially equipped to carry multiple wheelchairs to the main security checkpoint for people with disabilities as the swearing-in ceremony concluded.

"For those things you can't control, you need the flexibility to react, a flexibility that comes from having knowledgeable and well-trained employees and volunteers," General Manager John B. Catoe said yesterday.

MARC and Virginia Railway Express also provided extra service and did not report major problems, officials said. MARC sold out its allotted 35,000 train tickets, and its commuter buses carried 3,500 people to and from Washington on Tuesday. The buses could have carried 1,000 more people, spokeswoman Cheron Wicker said.

On VRE, which set a record Tuesday by carrying more than 18,000 people, trains were added to take an extra 1,500 people home because the agency wanted to help out people who needed a quick way to get back to Virginia, spokesman Mark Roeber said.

New problems emerged yesterday as people tried to get out of town. Many passengers missed flights on US Airways, the dominant carrier at Reagan National Airport, because of long lines.

US Airways spokesman Morgan Durant said the airline is waiving rebooking and baggage fees for those who missed flights because of check-in delays. The lines were caused in part by large numbers of visitors who headed to the airport after hotel checkout deadlines, even though their flights did not depart for hours.

At Union Station on Tuesday night, travel problems were compounded because the main hall and side halls were closed by the U.S. Secret Service hours before a ball later that night, according to Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black. Although a side entrance was designated for rail passengers who needed to catch Amtrak and MARC trains, most of Union Station was closed off to them, resulting in mass confusion and passengers missing trains. Some were directed to the nearby Metro entrance, only to learn they were in the wrong place, and broke down in tears, officials said.

"Our people there told me grown men and women were crying," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Staff writers Robert Thomson and Mark Berman contributed to this report.

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