The closing of Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic in front of the White House may have caused an inconvenience for thousands of motorists, but did it create a Hobson's choice?
Some of the leading business organizations in the area seem to think it did. Worse, the District of Columbia Building Industry Association (DCBIA) claims that closing the avenue between 15th and 17th streets NW was a severe blow to commerce.
Closing off the area clearly has resulted in more congestion and delays in some parts of downtown Washington. A study recently completed for the Federal Highway Administration shows the restriction on Pennsylvania Avenue and modifications to nearby streets greatly increased traffic on other major east-west thoroughfares.
Constitution Avenue, for example, carries 23,000 more vehicles a day, an increase of about 50 percent, now that Pennsylvania Avenue and portions of westbound E Street NW and Executive Avenue are closed. Traffic has also gone up substantially on K Street NW (31 percent) and H and I streets NW (34 percent), which were paired as one-way streets.
Traffic snarls and detours notwithstanding, no quantitative analysis has shown that closing off Pennsylvania Avenue has hurt business, as some executives claim.
And even if an economic impact study did show that businesses are losing millions of dollars from the security measure the Secret Service implemented a year ago, who is to say what constitutes adequate security for the White House, given the increase in terrorism in recent months?
All things considered, what we really have is a situation in which business leaders are insisting that the Secret Service make a choice: do what it thinks is necessary to protect the president of the United States or facilitate the flow of commerce in the District.
The closing of Pennsylvania Avenue is "detrimental to the commerce of our city," DCBIA President Thomas W. Wilbur testified at a congressional hearing in June.
"The two principal reasons for conducting business in the city—proximity and convenience—have been severely compromised," Wilbur continued.
The Greater Washington Board of Trade contends that the closing is "creating a hardship" on the city's private sector, forcing some executives to 'reconsider whether they must relocate their operations outside the District."
"In a city that is struggling to cope with dwindling revenues and skyrocketing costs of human services, this is just one more factor contributing to the problems faced by the local government . . .," the Board of Trade said in a May letter to Congress.
For the record, both the DCBIA and the Board of Trade have made it clear their members believe that the president's security is paramount.
Nonetheless, closing Pennsylvania Avenue in the interest of safety and security is "quite simply killing the city," Nelson F. Migdal, chairman of the DCBIA's legislative-governmental affairs committee, contended in a letter to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin.
The Secret Service, however maintains that if Pennsylvania Avenue is reopened, terrorists can, and will at some point, try to destroy the White House.
"For the Secret Service to recommend less [than closing Pennsylvania Avenue] would be inconsistent with the available data and, therefore, would be considered irresponsible," Director Eljay B. Bowron said in testimony before a congressional subcommittee in June.
The decision to close Pennsylvania Avenue was based, in part, on a recommendation by the advisory committee of the White House Security Review. The committee was established in the wake of several incidents at the White House, including the crash of a small plane on the south lawn, Bowron said.
But concerns about the vulnerability of the White House were heightened by the 1983 truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the subsequent bombings of the World Trade Center in New York and the federal office building in Oklahoma City.
The DCBLA shows no sign of retreating, however. In the current issue of "Pipeline," the association's newsletter, Wilbur said the challenge now is "to find additional ways to keep the pressure on the Clinton administration to reconsider [its] position."
Closing Pennsylvania Avenue may be only a minor inconvenience compared with the gridlock the DCBIA envisions in the downtown area east of the White House a year or two from now. Wilbur's testimony before a government reform and oversight subcommittee last month strongly suggested the need for a comprehensive traffic study for all of downtown.
"The opening next year of the 20,000-seat MCI Center arena and the 3 million-square-foot Ronald Reagan Building at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street NW will further exacerbate the situation," Wilbur warned. "With a world-class opera house and state-of-the-art convention center soon to follow, there is little doubt that gridlock will be a normal experience in our city as we approach the new millennium."
Now that they recognize the folly of allowing those projects to be built without an improved transportation plan for downtown, perhaps executives will act quickly to soften the impact of gridlock east of the White House.
And while they're at it, perhaps they can encourage city officials to incorporate the area around the White House in a new and improved traffic plan.