Local officials are preparing for upward of a 500,000 anti-gun-violence protesters to pour into the nation’s capital Saturday, in what could be a record-setting day for the region’s transportation system.
Thousands more visitors also are expected in Washington for the kickoff of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to the District each year. The events combined could test Metro and other transportation agencies in the region, with crowds as big if not bigger than those seen last year for the historic Women’s March on Washington.
“There’s going to be a lot of people,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and chief executive at Destination DC. “There’s going to be a lot of people on Metro, a lot of people walking and just a lot of activity.”
The March For Our Lives, a rally organized by students who survived the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., will close streets downtown; traffic on the Interstate 95 corridor and other main gateways into the city could experience backups. Thousands of people from all across the Washington region and the Northeast and beyond are expected to attend. Rally organizers have obtained a permit for 500,000 people to rally on the Mall and march along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Some city officials say the numbers could be larger. Hundreds of charter buses have been booked to bring the young protesters and their supporters to Washington from places as far as Columbus, Ohio and as close as Columbia, Md.
App-based services such as Rally and Skedaddle that facilitate crowdsourcing bus routes, say organizers are renting buses to the march from Ohio, Michigan, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
“We’ve confirmed 50-plus buses so far,” said Siheun Song, co-founder and president of the New York-based Rally app. “We anticipate they’re going to be on average 95 to 100 percent full.”
Those buses, Song said, will transport about 3,000 people. Rally app officials say more routes are expected to be organized before the end of this week.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) said the city is providing 60 buses to take as many as 3,000 students to the D.C. rally. The city will provide lunches and T-shirts to the students, she told a crowd of Baltimore students participating in the national school walkout day last Wednesday.
“Let’s show Washington, D.C., that Baltimore matters,” she said. “We want to make sure that you are in Washington, D.C., on March the 24th.”
Chala Jones, with Events DC, which oversees the RFK stadium parking facilities, said parking for as many as 400 buses is being reserved for the march attendees. Bus drivers can find their own parking outside RFK, so these numbers do not necessarily reflect all of the buses that will be headed to the District for the march.
The District’s Transportation Department says there are other parking sites in the city at locations such as Union Station.
Metro will boost its Saturday service to rush-hour levels, and officials are urging visitors to purchase their SmarTrip cards in advance to avoid long lines at the stations Saturday. For the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, when organizers had planned for 250,000 attendees, Metro recorded more than 1 million rides, the second-busiest day in its 40-year history. Some officials say the anti-gun-violence protest could be bigger than the Women’s March.
MARC commuter trains in Maryland plan to operate with additional rail cars and will do without bike racks to provide more seating capacity on trains from the outer Maryland suburbs to Washington, state transportation officials said.
Amtrak said it is considering expanding capacity for travel in the Northeast Corridor before and on March 24. Amtrak said it is seeing high demand for trains to the District the day before and the day of the march, but tickets were still available for travel to Washington.
Besides road closures around the march route, there are likely to be extensive parking restrictions in downtown.
The March For Our Lives will include “student speakers, musical performers, guest speakers and video tributes,” according to the permit application, with 14 Jumbotrons and 2,000 chairs.
Meanwhile, the opening ceremony for the Cherry Blossom Festival and accompanying events will draw thousands more visitors. The trees are expected to peak in late March. The four-week festival kicks off the beginning of the tourism season in Washington.
But officials and tourism experts say visitors should plan their trips and know the crowds are something the region’s transportation system and the city are accustomed to and handle well.
“The city — and those that are responsible for crowd management, security, ingress, egress and transportation — are prepared to handle those crowds,” Ferguson said. “I would not say to anyone that it’s going to be business as usual, but it would be surprising if the dynamics of next weekend are that egregious to those that are responsible for taking care of the individuals visiting our city.”