Proposal to Close Pennsylvania Ave.
Irks Commuters, Tourists

By D'Vera Cohn and Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writers

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 are permanent.

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 building.

"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 president's house.

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 mid-1980s.

"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 view.

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.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park