Getting there on Jan. 20

obama's transition

Transportation officials crafting plans for record crowds in D.C.

January 02, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

How do you plan for a transportation tsunami?

Where do you park 10,000 charter buses? How do you accommodate a possible 1 1/2 million would-be riders on a subway system with a capacity of about 1 million? How do you explain to people who are used to driving everywhere that their cars aren't welcome in downtown Washington? What happens on the roads, at the airports and aboard the trains when millions of visitors flood the capital region to witness history at the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States?

Federal government officials and transportation agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are wrestling with those questions and more in the 2 1/2 weeks that remain before the transfer of power to the first African-American to hold the presidency.

They are contemplating seemingly drastic steps to handle the influx and the security issues that go with it: Metro stations near the Mall will be closed; some highways heading into the city will be turned into bus parking lots; cars will be banned from some bridges; and commuter rail and bus lines will accept only passengers who have bought special tickets in advance.

The plans - many subject to change - are complicated by uncertainty about how many people will show up. Some initially estimated that as many as 5 million visitors would come to Washington. Others now guess that half that many will come, but Washington City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said he's still crafting his plans around the higher forecasts.

"If we start letting down our guard from a planning standpoint, we could be overwhelmed," he said.

The expected record attendance at an inauguration is expected to have an impact that extends far beyond the borders of the District of Columbia.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said the event will have a "ripple effect" that will be felt along the entire Interstate 95 corridor, including the McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge.

Traffic in Baltimore will be affected by Obama's scheduled appearance in the city Jan. 17, as well as an influx of charter buses carrying people who couldn't find affordable rooms - or rooms at all - in Washington.

"We know that there are a lot of people staying in hotel rooms in Baltimore going to the inaugural," said Porcari, whose department has assembled a working group of about 20 high-level officials to plan for the event. He added that it is possible that additional inaugural events could be scheduled in the city.

But it is Washington that faces the most enormous challenge: how to accommodate a potential crowd in the millions lining Pennsylvania Avenue and crowding the Mall.

Perhaps the greatest unknown is whether the city's widely admired Metro subway system can get through what is expected to be its busiest day ever without melting down.

"This is probably the largest event we have ever had to plan and prepare for," said Steven Taubenkibel, spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration. "This is going to be a monumental challenge - not just for this transit agency but for the entire region."

The Metro will open at 4 a.m. Jan. 20 and will operate a rush-hour schedule for 17 straight hours - until 9 p.m. The Metro is expected to shatter its previous record of carrying 854,000 on a single day and its previous inaugural record of 811,257 for Bill Clinton's 1992 swearing-in. By contrast, President George W. Bush's first inaugural in 2001 - coming on the heels of the disputed Florida balloting - barely broke the 600,000 mark.

Taubenkibel said the Metro can carry an estimated 120,000 passengers per hour - or 960,000 riders by noon if cars are at full occupancy.

Metro is urging people who live near closer-in subway stations - say, within two miles of the Mall - to lace up a comfortable pair of shoes and walk downtown. According to Taubenkibel, many trains may be at full capacity by the time they pull into stations close to the inaugural site. Some riders may have to catch an outbound train to the end of the line to ensure that they can find a place on an inbound train.

WMATA is also urging riders not to attempt to transfer between lines at such hubs as Metro Center, Gallery Place and L'Enfant Plaza. If you reach those stations, you're close enough to walk, Taubenkibel said. Two stations, Archives/Navy Memorial and Smithsonian, will be closed for security reasons.

Even more daunting than the task of getting people there will be the job of getting them home - especially if most of them decide to head for home immediately after the public ceremonies. Metro officials are urging riders to find something to do in downtown Washington in the hours after the swearing-in rather than trying to return home immediately.

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