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  Mass Transit Is the Way to Go

By Thomas Heath
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page W20
The Washington Post Magazine

From the moment he set his sights on downtown Washington for the location of a new arena, Abe Pollin, owner of the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals, emphasized one reason for leaving US Airways Arena in Landover: mass transit.

Bring the teams downtown and thousands of fans will board the Metro system and cruise to the $200 million MCI Center, just seven blocks east of the White House in the midst of the downtown commercial district — or so the theory goes. With the arena scheduled to open in two days, Pollin and the public will soon find out whether the mass transit bet is a good one.

"We have an $11 billion rail system, and we see MCI as the payoff for that," says Art Lawson, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Public Works.

Pollin's advisers and city traffic planners have developed a transportation plan that relies largely on Metro but also includes a "downtown zone" of thousands of existing parking spaces in lots and garages within 10 blocks of the arena, closing some streets and altering direction on others, changing curbside parking hours, installing dozens of directional signs along major routes and creating two taxicab stands.

The goal is to keep the number of vehicles under 5,000 per game, according to Pollin's traffic studies. With about 300,000 vehicles traveling into the city each weekday, D.C. traffic engineers are comfortable that downtown can absorb another 5,000 without disrupting vehicle and pedestrian access to the arena and nearby businesses.

Here's how Pollin plans to reach his goal:

With Metro expected to carry half of the 20,000-seat MCI Center's fans to and from every game, and with hundreds more walking, riding a taxicab or arriving by chartered bus, the number of fans going by car should be less than 10,000. At US Airways Arena games, each car carried an average of just under three people. Assuming an average of two people per car going to the MCI Center, that's fewer than 5,000 vehicles.

How, though, can Pollin be sure that 10,000 fans will ride Metro? The estimate is based on two factors: the 11,000 who routinely traveled by Metro to RFK Stadium to watch the Redskins, and the MCI Center's location amid a flock of Metro stations.

The Gallery Place-Chinatown station, which sits directly underneath the arena, is served by the Red, Green and Yellow lines. The Judiciary Square and Metro Center stations are only five minutes' walk to the east and west, respectively. The Archives-Navy Memorial station lies four blocks to the south, and Mount Vernon Square-UDC is five blocks north.

Gallery Place is expected to bear the brunt of the traffic. Metro spokeswoman Leona Agouridis estimates that about 5,000 fans will exit the station on their way to the game and 8,000 will enter it on their way home. To handle the push, Metro has expanded its Gallery Place entrance at Seventh and F streets, just a few steps from the arena doors. It includes an enlarged walkway, 12 additional turnstiles, four heavy-duty escalators, two high-speed elevators and new stairs.

Metro also will increase the number of trains before and after games, which will start at 7 p.m., half an hour earlier than at US Airways Arena. The Red Line trains currently arrive at Gallery Place every three minutes from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., so there isn't much room for an increase. But the trains are less frequent from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., when they run every six minutes, according to Metro. After 9:30, the trains run every 15 minutes. Metro's goal, Agouridis says, is "to clear 80 percent of the crowd within half an hour of the game."

For those who drive to the arena, they will be funneled from the suburbs to downtown by a three-stage series of signs.

The first, which simply say "Downtown Washington" and are accompanied by directional arrows, are being installed along major commuter routes such as North Capitol and East Capitol streets, New Hampshire, New York, Constitution and Connecticut avenues, the Whitehurst and Southeast freeways and I-395. (Most Virginia drivers are expected to travel downtown via I-66 across the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and up Constitution Avenue; or across the 14th Street Bridge and up I-395 to 12th Street or Massachusetts Avenue. Drivers from Southeast Washington will likely travel up Pennsylvania Avenue or take the Southeast Freeway to I-395 north and then to the Massachusetts Avenue exit. Connecticut, Wisconsin, Georgia and New York avenues are expected to bring Maryland drivers into the arena area. Southern Maryland residents will likely travel the Southeast Freeway to I-395. People coming from Northeast Washington are expected to come down New York Avenue.)

Once they get close to downtown, drivers will see the second in the series of signs, which say "MCI Center" and point the way toward the arena neighborhood.

Then, when they get within about 10 blocks of the arena -- the area known by traffic planners as the downtown zone — drivers will see "P" signs directing them to parking garages and lots. The garages will be located on the periphery of the downtown zone, requiring a short walk to the arena.

Not for everyone, though. Season and club seat ticket holders who have prepaid for their parking (in the neighborhood of $500 for the season) will be able to park in one of the reserved garages that are in a four-block radius of the MCI Center. And luxury suite ticket holders (those who have ponied up as much as $175,000) will get even farther, with a hangtag that allows them to enter the MCI Center's 500-space underground garage.

Traffic police, who will set up about an hour before the event, will direct drivers either to their appointed garage or to the nearest cash garage.

In an attempt to keep traffic moving and streets unclogged, city officials are also changing rush-hour and parking-meter restrictions to discourage people from using street parking in the immediate vicinity of the arena. Sixth Street has been changed from a one-way street to two-way traffic between F and L streets. And there will be no parking at any time next to the curbs that border the arena. "You need to be able to drive around the block," explains Michelle Pourciau, chief of transportation planning for the Department of Public Works.

For fans who want to take a taxi home, there will be two stands nearby, one at Eighth and F streets and one at Fifth and F.

Thomas Heath is a Post Sports reporter.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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