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Changed City Since Last Papal Visit

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By Robert Thomson
Sunday, April 13, 2008; Page C02

Washington has grown up a lot since the last time a pope visited.

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Back then, transportation planners were worried about whether there would be enough gas for the spectators and worshipers driving to see Pope John Paul II.

That was October 1979. The region was smaller, and so was its transit system.

The gas shortage had passed its crisis level, but, in that auto-dependent environment, the planners made sure 35 service stations on major routes received extra fuel.

Metrorail had opened in 1976 but was a scrawny version of today's robust 106-mile, 86-station system. For a Sunday afternoon papal Mass on the Mall, Metro stayed open from 6 a.m. until midnight and suspended the Farecard system, asking instead that riders throw 50 cents into barrels.

Passengers heading for Pope Benedict XVI's Mass at the new Nationals Park on Thursday will be riding to a station that didn't exist in 1979. Many will pay their fare with a $9 commemorative Metrorail Mass Pass.

So is our bigger, more sophisticated transportation system ready for the new pope? I think so, but it will require the public as well as the planners to pay attention.

The 1979 visit was on a holiday weekend. This time, the pope will be in the capital on four weekdays.

Commuters endure the occasional inconvenience of rolling traffic stops caused by motorcades, but this will be different.

Tens of thousands of people from across the nation will be in town looking for any opportunity to see a world spiritual leader, and in addition to the Thursday Mass, there will be popemobile processions to accommodate them.

In planning for the Mass, transportation officials are dealing with some known quantities. Unlike the 1979 Mass held in a wide-open space, this one is inside a stadium with a set capacity. But the Mall Mass was in the midst of a three-day weekend. This Thursday morning, worshipers will compete with commuters on the roads and trains.

Metro, which has been dealing well with transporting fans to the few Nationals baseball games held so far at the stadium, will face a greater challenge Thursday. But officials say the system is ready to accommodate at least 25,000 of the 47,000 people on their way to the Mass, in addition to the commuters who use the Green Line's Navy Yard Station.

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