Planners Consider Pennsylvania Avenue Tunnel
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2001; Page A01
Federal planners and District officials are reviewing a proposal to build a multilane tunnel to carry motor traffic underground near the White House instead of reopening Pennsylvania Avenue.
A federal task force on security design has hired a traffic consultant to assess the impact of various tunnel lengths on downtown Washington drivers. No cost estimate is available, but a two-block tunnel proposed in 1984 to run below the country's most famous address is projected to cost $70 million in today's dollars. A final recommendation is due by fall to President Bush.
The tunnel proposal is gaining attention because federal law enforcement agencies, fearing a catastrophic bomb attack, flatly oppose allowing public vehicular traffic near the presidential mansion. City officials, civic leaders, architects and historians are equally adamant that concrete barriers installed in May 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing pose an unacceptable visual and transportation toll.
"The tunnel may be a compromise," said Fred Lindstrom, staff member of the Commission of Fine Arts, a federal planning board for the District. "I don't know at this point if it is going to be a good compromise or not."
Another participant, speaking anonymously because of task force limits on public discussion, said: "You've got two immovable forces, security and traffic. It's impossible those two sides are ever going to agree. So a tunnel at the moment tends to be one we can all grasp. It might be a way out of the impasse."
Congress is poised to consider resolutions urging the commission and president to reopen the street, with the House expected to pass a measure sponsored by Washington area lawmakers next week.
A key sticking point with the tunnel proposal is funding. Because options being discussed call for a longer tunnel than the 1984 proposal, costs will be higher. District leaders said a tunnel will be a token compromise unless it is funded by the Bush administration.
"It is a viable alternative structurally," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "It will only happen if it goes in the president's budget. To put that idea forward without the backing of the White House is a false promise."
At the same time, there is no consensus among preservationists and planners that a tunnel will be an aesthetic improvement. Some fear that large entry ramps will overwhelm the historic White House precinct. Sending motorists underground also may not remedy complaints that the closure severed the avenue's symbolic role in bringing the people to the president and linking the White House to the Capitol.
Also, the National Park Service has adopted a separate plan that could be at odds with a tunnel. It has claimed space under the avenue for new White House storage rooms, motorcade staging and deliveries. The plan has not been funded by Congress.
Workers barricaded the avenue by presidential order after the April 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing. The move was recommended after an eight-month security review. Security officials have said that a one-ton truck bomb can cause 50 percent structural damage to a frame house at 275 feet. Pennsylvania Avenue is 325 feet from the reinforced sandstone White House.
Bush said during last year's presidential campaign that the closure should be reexamined, and the Republican Party platform called for reopening the street as "an expression of confidence in the restoration of the rule of law."
The National Capital Planning Commission began a federal interagency review in March to beautify security design around federal buildings and monuments in the capital's core and to decide the fate of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Once traffic studies are done in September, a proposal could form the basis of a funding and legislative request.
Task force members include senior Interior Department and General Services Administration representatives, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). The Justice and Transportation departments, the Secret Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation are also taking part.
Dan Tangherlini, director of the District's Transportation Division, said the city prefers to realign the street to curve away from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and reopen it using low-hanging pedestrian footbridges, gates or traffic circles to restrict trucks and other vehicles.
But Tangherlini said the city is open to a tunnel. "It is being looked at more seriously than before."
A Secret Service spokesman declined comment citing presidential security.
Task force Chairman Richard L. Friedman said: "We have not made any decision about an option. That's the purpose of the traffic study, to look at everything."
According to task force participants, one option calls for restoring the city's major east-west downtown artery by digging two underground lanes and an emergency access lane in each direction in front of the White House. Proposed lengths stretch between Pennsylvania Avenue's intersections with 15th and 17th streets NW, between 15th Street and the mid-block beyond 17th Street, or between the mid-blocks beyond the two intersections.
Task force members disagree on where to locate tunnel openings. Security experts fear that an explosion at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street, which is near Blair House -- a guest house for the president's international visitors -- and the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, could endanger the White House and West Wing. The farther a tunnel extends, however, the higher the cost.
Plans are complicated by underground utility lines and the Metro subway system, whose Blue and Orange lines pass diagonally 30 feet below Pennsylvania Avenue.
Architects who have examined the site said there is space for another tunnel. "There's room . . . with a little extra reinforcement," said John Carl Warnecke, a San Francisco architect who presented a tunnel plan this spring, and who prepared versions for President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Participants say the drive to reopen the avenue has stalled because the District has not proved that business and traffic have suffered.
"The city's assertion that traffic was irrevocably harmed still needs to be made more technically clear," said one participant. "The Secret Service can explain itself quicker. . . . The city probably could have done a more persuasive job."
Tangherlini disagreed: "We can articulate our concern. Twenty-six thousand cars a day go somewhere else. . . . Maybe we don't say it loud enough."
The task force consultant, Parsons Transportation Group, is also studying leaving the avenue closed and channeling traffic north of the White House. Synchronizing traffic signals and eliminating parking on H and I streets NW could open four additional east- and westbound lanes.
That option could be quicker and cheaper than digging a tunnel in front of one of the world's most famous pieces of real estate.