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  If You're Coming to MCI Center, Take the Subway
By Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, November 28, 1997; Page E1

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Welcome, MCI Center. May you prosper for generations. But you won't unless your customers get in the habit of arriving and departing by subway.

As the center prepares to open Tuesday, I offer a humble plea. Don't try to drive to MCI. Please. Because as soon as you get close, it will take you 10 minutes to go four blocks-on a good day.

Also, many of you have never been in that part of town, and you will get lost and confused. But the main reason is that you won't be able to park easily, if at all.

If you drive to MCI, and you miss 20 minutes of a basketball game because you're circling the block, and you end up parking a mile away and missing an additional 20 minutes, you will get mad and stop coming. That is foolish and unnecessary, when the solution-the beautiful, spiffy, speedy, efficient, relatively cheap solution-is right below your feet.

Yet vast numbers of us seem determined to be foolish. In an interview, Metro General Manager Richard A. White said he expects only about 50 percent of MCI crowds to arrive and depart by subway.

White said that estimate "may be conservative," and "we'll be prepared to respond" if it is. However, he said it may actually prove optimistic if people try Metro and come away disappointed, for whatever reason.

"They may give it only one shot," White said. So Metro "wants to make it as easy as we possibly can. We want to encourage and condition the transit habit."

I realize that some of you are welded into your driver's seats. You travel by car wherever you go, and you expect to do so when you go to MCI.

Be my guest. But consider these facts:

There are only 500 parking spaces beneath MCI Center. According to Marc Goldman, public relations director for Centre Management, those spaces are reserved for suite holders and players. There is no public parking under the building. None.

There are five street-level parking lots within two blocks of MCI Center. I scouted them myself. But none stays open past 7 p.m., which will be game time for all hockey and pro basketball games. Even if those lots decide to stay open for MCI crowds, they offer only about 330 spaces among them.

There is very little metered parking on nearby streets. Besides, all metered spaces have a two-hour limit, and the limit applies from 7:30 to 10 p.m., as well as during the day. If you'd like to come dashing outside near the end of a tight game to feed the meter, I'm not going to stop you. But it doesn't strike me as a charming way to spend part of an evening.

The nearest lot with more than 500 spaces is at Union Station. That's a brisk 12-minute walk (15 minutes if you no longer do brisk). It's also a two-stop ride on the Red Line. But parking at Union Station probably will cost you $10. And if you're going to take the subway for two stops, you might as well take it for your entire journey.

There are four large hotels within six blocks of MCI Center. Three have underground parking, but don't bet on finding a space. Those hotels are among the city's busiest. They won't stop renting rooms, or holding meetings and special events, just because there's hockey or basketball nearby. By the way, hotel officials say they may bar MCI parking if they run out of spaces for their own guests.

The D.C. Convention Center is three blocks from MCI Center's front door. Crowds at the Convention Center sometimes top 5,000. If even one-fourth of those people drive and park, MCI patrons will not find parking difficult. They will find it impossible.

Restaurants in Chinatown (right around the corner from MCI) serve an average of 6,400 dinners a night, according to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Say half those people begin their meals at 6 p.m. — and park at 5:55 p.m. You think they will have gotten to the fortune cookies by 6:50 p.m., when the arriving MCI throngs will want their parking spaces? You're dreaming.

Both Metro and MCI Center will actively nudge customers toward trains. According to Goldman, everyone who orders tickets via Ticketmaster will receive a brochure. It outlines how to use Metro and stresses that all five lines (Red, Blue, Yellow, Orange and Green) stop within four blocks of MCI Center.

White added that Metro may leaflet cars parked in nearby surface lots during December MCI events. It would be a way of "introducing or reintroducing those people" to Metro and a "real opportunity for us to keep these people," he said.

But here's the clincher, as far as I'm concerned.

If you park in any of Metro's suburban lots, you can retrieve your car after 10 p.m. and pay nothing. As long as you leave MCI about 9:30 (an average time for 7 p.m. games to end), you should reach suburban stations after 10. Presto: free parking.

That's especially attractive for MCI customers who park in the suburbs in the morning, go to work via Metro, go to the game by subway, cab or on foot, and then return to where they parked. The best news of all: Metro has 36,000 parking spaces at its suburban stations. There shouldn't be a shortage.

So which will it be, sports fans? A nerve-racking, slow trip by car or a fast, safe, smooth trip by subway? As the Wizards might put it, this one is a dunk.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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