On Friday, gridlock in D.C.

Tourists: Indiana youngsters will compete with thousands of other visitors and NATO dignitaries for elbow room.

April 21, 1999|By DAVID L. GREENE | DAVID L. GREENE,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They baked cookies. They washed cars. They even had their parents stand at intersections to beseech motorists for donations. In all, sixth-graders from tiny Loogootee, Ind., raised $28,137 over a six-month period to pay for a one-day dream trip to Washington.

Then, about a month ago, the 73 students at Loogootee Elementary School heard about something called "NATO." Most didn't know what it was. But they were told that it would engulf Washington the very day -- Friday -- they had chosen to visit, clogging the streets that connect their tour bus stops around the National Mall.

"If they don't get to see something that day, they basically won't see it," said Cindy Lindsey, a former travel agent in Loogootee who helped arrange the trip. "Most will never get to go back again."

During NATO's 50th-anniversary summit -- which takes place this weekend and is billed as the largest gathering of world leaders this city has seen -- many roads surrounding the major tourist attractions will be closed. Traffic will likely succumb to gridlock as motorcades ferry world leaders from event to event.

The worst of the traffic nightmares is expected Friday. So summit organizers have sent a blunt message to would-be visitors: Unless you have pressing business in the city Friday, don't bother.

But for some -- such as those in Loogootee, who have already surrendered their bake-sale profits to Southwest Airlines and could never afford the fees to change their flights -- rescheduling is not an option.

In rural Loogootee (population 3,000), the airline reservations were made in November, and 41 adult chaperones were cleared to take this one day off from work. The entire community pitched in. The local Hardee's, for example, donated some of its profits to the school-trip fund.

Trip to broaden horizons

Roberta Williams, a 51-year-old teacher at Loogootee Elementary, had envisioned the Washington trip as a way to open her students' eyes to their nation's history and give them a chance to visit an urban, multiethnic mosaic.

"I wanted them to get a global taste -- people of different races," Williams said. "We're not culturally diverse here."

A month ago, Lindsey, the former travel agent, broke the news to the students that the NATO summit would probably mean that all the sightseeing they had hoped to pack into a single day -- which begins with a gathering in their school parking lot at 2:30 a.m. -- would not be possible.

"It was a little disappointing for them to know it could alter their whole trip," she said.

The students will be relieved to learn that the Capitol, the expected centerpiece of their trip, will be open, although the Rotunda will be closed on Friday.

Tours of the White House, which normally take place Tuesday through Saturday, have been canceled Friday and Saturday.

Many of the Smithsonian institutions will also be closed on Friday. The exceptions are the Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, the National Zoo, the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture and the National Postal Museum.

All the museums and galleries will run on normal business hours Saturday and Sunday.

The National Park Service said all monuments, as well as Ford's Theater, will remain open Friday through Sunday. But the Old Post Office Tower will be closed all weekend.

Capitol visit anticipated

In Loogootee, the prospect that the Capitol would be closed had been the biggest worry. The group's tour is scheduled for 2:10 p.m. Friday. The students, who have been researching the building on the Internet, heard rumors last week that the entire building would be closed on Friday.

Williams, the teacher, put the best face on the closing of the Rotunda, saying they were thankful that they could get into the building at all.

"Our statehouse in Indianapolis -- it has a Rotunda," she said. "I'm sure it's not as ornate as the Capitol. But they understand the whole Rotunda thing."

James Womack, vice-president of Thrifty Tours Inc., the bus company that is handling the Loogootee trip, has been rewriting itineraries for clients all week, hoping to steer them away from NATO at all costs.

Many of his bus groups are here for multiple days and have decided to skip the sites in the district on Friday. In fact, that day he is having his buses avoid Washington altogether, focusing instead on Arlington Cemetery, Mount Vernon and other Virginia sites.

Many bus companies said they were talking about using a similar strategy, raising the possibility that the Virginia sites could become as clogged as the Federal Triangle area that is host to the summit.

"We'll be joining the thousands of other tour buses," Womack said. "Every other company in town is going to have the same great idea."

The Loogootee troupe has no such luxury. Lacking the cash for a hotel, they planned to visit only for a day -- Friday. Their bus, therefore, will have to venture into the motorcade-filled streets of downtown on the worst traffic day.

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