By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 1998; Page D01
E Street NW would be widened just north of the Ellipse and opened to two-way traffic under a federal plan to ease congestion that has plagued downtown since Pennsylvania Avenue was closed in front of the White House three years ago for security reasons.
The plan, to be announced today by Federal Highway Administration officials, calls for widening portions of E Street between 15th and 18th streets NW and opening it to westbound as well as eastbound traffic -- providing drivers with a much-needed route west through the heart of the city.
The initiative for the stretch of E Street, between the White House's South Lawn and the Ellipse, would have to be approved by city and federal planners, some of whom indicated support for the idea yesterday.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has pushed federal officials to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue just north of the White House, called the E Street idea the next best thing. The section of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed in May 1995 after security concerns about major federal buildings increased in light of the Oklahoma City bombing.
"It's going to make all the difference in the world getting across town," Norton said yesterday. "E Street was standing there, one-way. It was clear we needed some action on it. This is not a high-cost structural change. . . . It is a far better alternative than we thought would occur by this time."
Since Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to protect the White House from possible truck bombs or other threats, commuters and business owners have complained bitterly that the move has snarled traffic and cut eastern and western parts of downtown off from each other.
Because E Street is now one-way eastbound, drivers who want to head west must use Constitution Avenue to the south or I Street to the north.
A widened, two-way E Street would provide drivers with an alternative to other routes that have become increasingly crowded near the White House.
The highway administration is contributing $500,000 for an 18-month feasibility and design study of the project. After the study, construction would take about a year to complete, and estimates last year were that the cost would be about $1 million.
Federal highway officials declined yesterday to provide more recent estimates, but they did say the cost would be funded by the federal government and would not come out of the District's federal highway money.
"This is another example of the Clinton administration's good-neighbor commitment to the District of Columbia," a highway official said.
The National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over E Street between 15th and 17th streets NW, supports the study but has not endorsed the idea of making E Street a two-way thoroughfare, spokesman Earle Kittleman said.
About 250 tourists cross E Street every five minutes during White House tour hours, and making sure they can safely cross what would be a busier street is important, he added.
"Safety is always a concern," Kittleman said. "We would urge a careful study" of returning two-way traffic to E Street.
Business officials praised the E Street plan.
"Bring it on!" said John McClain, a transportation specialist for the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "As a business organization, we have long been on record supporting infrastructure. The roads need to be greatly improved to provide better access."
Improvements on E Street would require widening it by 12 feet between 17th and 18th streets, a block that is under the District's jurisdiction. That would require removing several mature trees along the street's south side, city engineers said.
A portion of E Street just east of 17th Street also would have to be widened somewhat along its south side. Metered parking spaces would have to be removed to make room for four lanes of traffic.
The project would include Victorian-style light standards, granite curbs and pebble aggregate sidewalks that are standard design for the Mall area, federal highway officials said.
Although Pennsylvania Avenue would remain closed in front of the White House, the Park Service is to announce today that at least one vehicle will be allowed to operate along that section of the avenue -- a shuttle bus that will take disabled and elderly people from one end of the closed street to the other, with a stop at the White House gate.
The lift-equipped bus will provide better access to one of Washington's most popular destinations and will operate from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
The Widening of E Street
To solve some of the continuing traffic problems caused by the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue, a plan is under consideration to widen E Street to make it a two-way thoroughfare again.
Currently: E Street is one-way, eastbound.
The plan: Introduce two-way traffic to E Street between 15th and 18th Streets; traffic would continue to be restricted from Executive Avenue and State Place.