Proposal to Close Pennsylvania
Irks Commuters, Tourists
By D'Vera Cohn and Stephen C. Fehr
A proposal to block cars, trucks-and buses from Pennsylvania
Avenue in front of the White House would dump thousands of
vehicles onto nearby streets and create one of the largest
disruptions to downtown traffic in years.
An advisory committee studying White House security has
recommended closing the avenue between 15th and 17th streets
NW to prevent a terrorist attack on the president--a concern that
gained momentum after the bombing of a federal building in
Oklahoma City last month.
The Secret Service yesterday afternoon blocked off the eastbound
lane of the avenue closest to the White House. Barricades also
blocked the northbound lane of 17th Street closest to the Old
Executive Office Building as well as part of State Place, south
of the White House near the Ellipse. A Secret Service spokesman
didn't return phone calls last night to say whether the closings
The idea to ciose the road in front of the White House faces
opposition by many commuters, tour bus operators and, perhaps
most important, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). President
Clinton, who has not commented on the idea publicly, will review
it if it reaches his desk, a White House spokesman said.
The street closing would be the most vivid example of tightening
security throughout the nation's capital in recent years. First
came concrete baniers blocking entrance to the Capitol grounds.
Then a ban on underground parking at the Smithsonian. Late
last year, vendors were evicted from the sidewalk outside the FBI
"This is Washington's Champs Elysees, a national symbol, said
Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the American Automobile
Association, referring to Paris's grand boulevard. "Closing it
would be one more of those measures where Americans in general,
and we in Washington, would feel a loss of personal privilege."
Closing Pennsylvania Avenue would create a two-block pedestrian
mall and force 13,000 vehicles a day onto adjacent streets.
Four Metrobus routes between Southeast Washington and Friendship
Heights in Northwest would have to be changed. Ambulances would
take longer to reach George Washington university Hospital.
And it would put an end to the popular local practice of piling
tourists, friends or relatives in a car and cruising by the
Gerald Donaldson, an engineer with the automobile safety branch
of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen organization, said that if
traffic from Pennsylvania Avenue was sent to already crowded H, I
and K streets, "you'd have inch-by-inch creeping traffic" on
those streets. Parking restrtions and more traffic lights would
be needed on those streets to divert traffic, he and others said.
The street-closing Proposal is unpopular among commuters, some
of whom are still steaming about having to find an new route
after the White House ciosed East Executive Avenue in the
"We have enough traffic problems here as it is," said Yvette
Reese, who commutes to the District from Maryland to work at a
publishing company. And if she brings tourist friends to look at
the White House, "we'll have to find a place to park just to look
at it. There's no parking downtown.
In addition to the Secret Service plan, the National Park
Service is developing a proposal for the White House and the
parkland south of it that could recommend the closing of
more streets in that area.
The Park Service plan, which looks ahead at the White House area
in 20 years, said officials should consider closing Pennsylvania
Avenue in front of the White House and perhaps building a tunnel
underneath it. E Street, which cuts in front of the Ellipse on
the south side of the White House, also would be closed or made
into a tunnel under one plan being considered. E Street is used
by thousands of Virginia commuters coming off the Theodore
Roosevelt Memorial Bridge.
Anderson, the AAA spokesman, said closing both E Street and
Pennsylvania Avenue "would be devastating. It would isolate the
western half of the District ... and create a large block for
people to get around."
John McClain, transportation director for the Greater Washington
Board of Trade, the regional chamber of commerce, said federal
officials should examine the traffic flow in the general area
before deciding whether to close Pennsylvania.
Still, one advantage of planning such a street closing in a
downtown area, Bethesda traffic engineer Bob Morris said, is "the
tremendous flexibility because you have a network of streets" on
which to reroute traffic.
For example, Morris said, H and I streets could be one-way in
the rush-hour direction with parking prohibited to allow use of
all four lanes. Traftic signals could be programmed to give more
green time to cars traveling from east to west.
It's not clear whether the advisory committee's proposal has the
support of Ronald K. Noble, undersecretary of the treasury for
enforcement, or his boss, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who
will forward the panel's report to Clinton, possibly next week.
Even if Clinton accepts the idea, it needs the approval of the
National Capital Planning Commission and possibly other
government agencies. Gingrich, who said this week he opposes
the street closing, could use congressional hearings to push his
Some tourists and tour operators don't Wte the idea either.
"We're a free country and that's ours, and we paid for it,"
declared tour bus driver Norman Bell, of Nashville.
And it wouldn't solve security problems anyway, said tourist
Ezequiel Gallardo of El Paso, Tex. "Someone off his rocker could
do anything," he said.
But sentiment on the street is not unanimous. "It would cause me
inconvenience, but I would hate to see the White House bombed,"
said Jerry Borello, a tour bus driver. People interested in
seeing the White House can park and wallt a block or two, he
said. "Exercise is good for you."
Staff writer Wendy Melillo contributed to this report.
Washington Post Staff Writers
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