Here's to transit officials for inaugural travel nightmare that wasn't

GETTING THERE

January 26, 2009|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,getting.there@baltsun.com

The people who run our regional public transportation agencies are more accustomed to dodging brickbats than catching bouquets. When things go smoothly, they're just doing their jobs. When they don't, they're a bunch of incompetent idiots.

But you have to admit: They did a remarkable job Tuesday in getting an enormous crowd to and from the presidential inauguration.

Topping the list of all-star performers is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration and its general manager, John Catoe. WMATA carried more than 1.1 million riders on its Metro system that day. That total is about 250,000 more riders than it had ever carried - with the previous record being set the day before. (One Metro rider ended up on the Red Line tracks on Inauguration Day, but an alert transit officer got her to safety.)

Metro got people there and back safely by showing its customers the tough love they needed - deftly closing stations when they got too crowded and reopening them as the lines eased. The effect was to spread out the crowds by encouraging those who could to walk to more distant stations.

Certainly many riders experienced the discomfort of long lines and being smooshed together with their fellow human creatures, but if any were surprised by those conditions, they must have been on another planet since Election Day. Metro officials did a laudable job of laying out exactly what passengers could expect. Then it delivered. Particularly impressive was its maintenance team's quick response when riders - most likely subway virgins from out of town - disabled trains by trying to hold Metro doors.

WMATA also deserves kudos for beefing up the runs of the B30 bus between BWI Marshall Airport and the Greenbelt Metro station for the inaugural weekend. That bus run is the hidden jewel among the transit links between Baltimore and Washington. It would be a wonderful byproduct of the inaugural if that experience created demand for more frequent service on that route every day.

The District of Columbia and Virginia governments can take credit for their responsible decision to close the Potomac bridges to passenger vehicles - even in the face of whiners who considered it a form of discrimination. (Damn those Yankees for putting a river between the District and Old Virginny.)

As it turned out, Virginians apparently flocked to mass transit or enjoyed a leisurely walk across the stream. Traffic nightmare averted.

Maryland transportation officials played a supporting role, and it was smart and well-executed. The decision to sell MARC tickets for that day on an all-reserved basis was vindicated by the orderliness of the commuter trains' performance in getting people there. Also validated was the decision to be flexible about the return trip. Riders who showed up early at Union Station were allowed to take earlier trains, which freed up space for those who couldn't make it back to the station in time.

One key to MARC's smooth outbound performance was the surprise decision to add an unannounced early Penn Line return trip departing soon after 2 p.m. Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said MARC couldn't be sure Amtrak would provide that capacity until Inauguration Day, but he allowed that the deal had been in the works for some time. It was like the ace in the hole that results in a full house once the final card is dealt.

Maryland officials can also take a bow for effectively putting out the word to use public transit. That residents of the region responded was clear from the scenes on the screens at the State Highway Administration's operations center in Hanover. Drivers on the Capital Beltway, Woodrow Wilson Bridge and American Legion Bridge have seldom had it so good.

Were there some lapses and individual horror stories? Undoubtedly. But there were no meltdowns, no mass overnight strandings. And the bozos who got their cars towed by parking on the U.S. 50 ramp to the Capital Beltway should have known better.

Sovereign state

John S. White of Stewartstown, Pa., wrote to decry the "outrageous situation" he observed on Interstate 95 the day after Christmas:

"My wife and I were returning from the shore and we were fortunate, in a way, because we merged into backed-up traffic near the Delaware toll gates in the direction of Baltimore. Thus we did not have much of a wait.

"The northbound situation, however, was an altogether different story. The traffic in that direction was backed up nearly to the rest stop in Maryland near Perryville. I estimate that the backup extended some 15 miles! This is outrageous. Somehow the state of Delaware has to do better. My heart was breaking for those people trying to get home after Christmas and being stuck in a slowdown that must have taken hours to get past."

I disagree. Delaware can do what it pleases. It's a sovereign state that doesn't care about your time as long as it gets its $4.

It's the rest of us who have to do better - by never, ever paying tolls on the Delaware Turnpike. It's a lousy deal under the best conditions and outright extortion in heavy traffic. The toll plaza is easily avoided. Take your pick of bypasses. (See map.) Friends don't let friends go through the Delaware Toll Plaza.

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