The opening of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino resort will bring more than glitz and glamour to southern Prince George’s County. It will bring traffic — lots of traffic to an area already known for its gridlock and congestion.
The first 24 hours of operations, starting with Thursday night’s grand opening, is expected to bring as many as 9,000 vehicles to the area. A good portion of those visitors are set to arrive for private events near the height of the evening rush. Another wave of visitors will make their way to the resort for the 11 p.m. public opening.
County and casino officials say there’s no need to panic. Improvements such as new striping, realignments and a new road should help with traffic flow around the casino. And if that’s not enough, dozens of police officers and electronic message boards will be in place to move traffic on opening day and the days that follow.
“Will there be congestion? Yes. Will traffic look like it looked in 1996 or 2006? No. But we are going to manage it,” said Prince George’s Police Chief Henry P. Stawinski III.
Heavier traffic is expected in the days and weeks after the opening, officials say. The casino is expected to draw 25,000 visitors daily, reshaping traffic patterns and adding to congestion in the car-centric area.
Traffic is already one of the biggest drawbacks to growth at National Harbor, a mini-city that has sprung up on the Potomac River over the past decade. The closest Metro station is about five miles away, and there is limited pedestrian and bike infrastructure in what has become a bustling entertainment hub that draws more than 11 million visitors annually. Officials say as many as 90,000 vehicles enter National Harbor during an average week and that number could double when the casino opens.
Although National Harbor has the infrastructure needed for a casino, its proximity to the District and Capital Beltway create “inherent challenges,” officials said.
“Simply because there are so many cars on the road,” said Gordon Absher, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International, noting the region’s chronic traffic problems. “Our goal is to try and make it so we don’t make things any more challenging.”
But neighborhood residents are concerned that an already-bad situation will get worse. Special events such as the lighting of the Christmas tree on the waterfront draw huge crowds and create backups; holiday shopping at Tanger Outlets, a half-mile from the casino entrance, creates bumper-to-bumper conditions. The morning and evening rush on nearby Oxon Hill Road and Indian Head Highway bring traffic to a crawl — not to mention the Capital Beltway over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
“It takes 30 minutes, sometimes more, to go four miles on Indian Head Highway from Fort Washington to the Beltway,” said Ron Weiss, a retired Air Force officer who has lived in Fort Washington for more than 30 years. So now it is going to take longer.
“Everybody is anxious about what they will experience when it actually opens,” Weiss said. “There aren’t any good alternatives to get out of here. I don’t know that we have any solutions other than to take an early Christmas vacation.”
Prince George’s police say their plan is simple: keep cars moving.
Officers will direct traffic at intersections near the casino, the agency’s helicopter will surveil the area, and message boards on the interstates and other roads will guide casino visitors to designated ingress routes, the chief said. Traffic patterns will be monitored from a central command center at National Harbor and traffic engineers will adjust traffic signals as needed.
As many as 3,000 people have confirmed their attendance at the private events Thursday evening, MGM officials say, and if experience elsewhere serves as a guide, there could be lines outside before the doors open to the public. The casino parking garage opens at 10:30 p.m. Thursday.
The resort has about 5,000 parking spaces, with multiple entry points on Monument Avenue and MGM National Avenue. The main casino and hotel entrances are on MGM National Avenue.
The opening coincides with the peak of the holiday shopping season, which brings thousands of people to the outlet mall, particularly on weekends and evenings, and the juncture of MGM National Avenue (formerly known as Harborview Avenue) and Oxon Hill Road is known as a traffic choke point.
Traffic experts say the new patterns will stabilize after a few weeks. While the casino is likely to add thousands of cars to the area, its events, including shows at the 3,000-seat theater, are unlikely to draw huge crowds all at once like venues such as FedEx Field. Casino traffic will be spread round-the-clock.
Stawinski said as many as 65 officers will be managing traffic beginning opening day and for as long as necessary. Police commanders toured area roads Monday to go over the plan for each intersection, studying potential problems such as what to do when three lanes narrow to one lane near Oxon Hill and anticipating the flow of pedestrians to the casino from the nearby shops.
The casino’s opening is likely to be much more complex than a similar undertaking when Tanger Outlets opened in November 2013. County police spent $600,000 to support the opening of the outlet mall; Tanger Outlets reimbursed the county $200,000 for the effort, leaving the county to cover the remainder.
The cost for managing casino traffic could significantly exceed that figure. Because the casino is a 24/7 operation, the county will put more officers on the roads. In 2013, police said they had about 80 officers directing traffic near the outlet. This time, officers will be working round-the-clock on three eight-hour shifts with as many as 65 officers working each shift. Officers on that assignment will be earning overtime; the average overtime for a county police officer is $55 an hour, according to the department.
Each hour that the county police helicopter is in the air will cost $300, officials said.
County officials have declined to say how much the traffic operation will cost in total. They said while the county is in discussions with MGM about contributing, the county will probably foot the bill.
Meanwhile, crews are wrapping up $10 million worth of road improvements near the resort, including widening and new access to National Harbor from the Wilson Bridge. A two-lane road, Rivercrest Drive, was built to create a loop around the casino and relieve traffic on Oxon Hill Road where drivers on MGM National Avenue previously had to go, stop at the lights and turn around to enter the casino or return to National Harbor.
State highway authorities say the improvements along with patrol officers and signage should keep traffic moving. The state plans to have additional emergency response units out to quickly clear disabled vehicles and accidents from the roads.
The county sent postcards to residents who live near the casino telling them what to expect and how to get traffic information. Robo-calls are reminding them of what’s coming, and residents can sign up to receive traffic alerts.
Still, transportation officials say, drivers in the area should expect delays.
For visitors, the advice is to plan ahead, know what exit to take and where to park. Avoid the commuter rush. And be considerate of other drivers, keeping in mind that because this is a new facility most everyone will be experiencing the roads for the first time.
“All we ask is for a little patience,” National Harbor spokeswoman Angela Sweeney said. “Plan ahead, avoid peak times — come early, stay late. If possible, take public transportation and pack a little patience.”
The casino can be accessed from Interstate 295 at Exit 1B or from the Capital Beltway via Exits 2A and 2B. Officials are also urging visitors to make use of other modes of transportation such as ride sharing and the water taxi option to National Harbor. But with National Harbor not within walking distance to Metro, most of its visitors, workers and residents get there by car. Getting to the casino on foot, even from the downtown area remains challenging. Although there is sidewalk around the casino, there isn’t a completed pedestrian network connecting to the rest of the development down the waterfront area or up the hill at Tanger Outlets.
Two Metrobus routes connect the new resort to the Metro system. The NH1 route provides service from the Southern Avenue Metro station on the Green Line in Prince George’s, and the NH2 route runs there from the Huntington and King Street stations on the Yellow Line in Alexandria. Metrobus buses from Alexandria to National Harbor make their last run about 2 a.m.; the bus from Southern Avenue runs until midnight.
“Metrobus customers should be prepared for some delays near National Harbor,” said Richard Jordan, a transit agency spokesman. “We will be monitoring traffic conditions and strategic buses will be available in the area to respond as needed.”
A new private circulator service at National Harbor runs daily between 11 a.m. and 4 a.m. And the Potomac Riverboat Co. plans to add service to its schedule to provide more access to the facility starting next year.
Heavier traffic volumes are expected along Oxon Hill Road near the casino and the Tanger Outlets at MGM National Avenue. Residents from communities including National Harbor, Fort Washington, Oxon Hill and Forest Heights will be affected, and are encouraged to avoid Oxon Hill Road during the peak travel times.
Once people familiarize themselves with the facility and the road network around it, officials say, the traffic will reach an equilibrium. But it will never be the same, officials said.
“Once this opens, it’s never going to be the way it is today. Just like when the National Harbor opened, things here changed. And when Tanger opened, things here changed. And when the next attraction after MGM opens, things will change again,” Stawinski said. “The county is not the way it was 10 or 20 years ago, and it will continue to grow.”