Downtown traffic mess looms

By Brian Reilly

City traffic planners, at a loss to predict the severity of backups spawned by the shutdown of Pennsylvania Avenue, are suggesting that motorists accustomed to passing near the White House brace for last-minute route changes.

And Steve Eldridge, whose job is to watch traffic as an assistant operations director for the regional Metro Traffic Control, said, "Quite honestly, we're geing to wait and see what happens [tomorrow]

Likewise, in an attempt to offset a panic, the federal government is allowing its workers in the District to take an extra hour to get to work.

A D.C. Department of Public Works spokeswoman urged commuters to choose altenate routes. But she said that for DPW to single out a preferred roadway would be counterproductive.

"If you make a recommendation, you clog up that route." Linda Grant said.

Metro buses that previously used Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House will now veer off to H and I streets between 15th and17th streets, a Metro spokeswoman yesterday.

She said that will change as soon as all of hte detours become permanent. Thats because H Street is to be converted to an eastbound one-way street.

Police set up barricades yesterday that made H Street one-way westbound -- that's right, west-bound. For the moment, I Street remains one-way eastbound.

When all the changes are completed, the one-way directions on both streets will be reversed, according to a public works plan.

Light Saturday traffic facilitated the rerouting of cars and buses,yesterday but no one wants to risk forecasting tomorrow morning's traffic conditions until they see how the shutdown ripples throughout the city.

"I'd simply say leave early and listen to traffic reports." Mr. Eldridge recommended.

Ms. Grant said the alternate east-west routes are Constitution and Independence avenues south of the White House and H, I and K streets to the north.

The most nettlesome traffic delays are expected on the heavily traveled 15th and 17th street corridors.

In addition to the 25,000-cars passing by the White House every day, roughly 30,000 motorists use 17th Street and 35,000 use 15th Street. But those numbers drop "substantially" north of Pennsylvania Avenue, Mr. Eldridge said yesterday. That means many of the commuters eased the bottleneck by turning on to Pennsylvania Avenue and New York Avenue on their way to work.

The six-lanes of Pennsylvania Avenue provided the first pressure valve, or east-west roadway, for commuters coming from Northern Virginia. The commuters will pick their favorite alternates and adapt, but no one expects it to be easy.

"It's going to throw more traffic onto I Street, which really can't handle it, and on K Street, which is already maxed out," Mr. Eldridge said.

The temporary obstacles on many streets have already complicated traffic forecasts.

The security barricades that closed off the affected streets were up before yesterday's tourists could make one last drive along Pennsylvania Avenue. The waist-high, concrete barriers closed off the road at 17th Street and at Madison Place.

Even though administration officials said the section of road from Madison Place to l5th Street would remain open, police cars yesterday formed a barrier at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Work crews also placed the concrete barriers along the H Street and Madison Place boundaries of Lafayette Square to prevent anyone from attempting to drive on pedestrian walkways to get to the White House.

"In the long term, we hope to have barriers that are pleasing to the eye, that have been approved by the various historical societies and groups and so forth but these are just temporary measures," said an administration official.

Administration officials said they now will wait for recommendations from the National Capitol Planning Commission on what to do with the portion of Pennsylvania Avenue directly in front of the White House and how to best route traffic.

Officials anticipate creating a pedestrian mall in the space while still leaving a lane or two in places for use by official vehicles. The full road in between the Old Executive Office Building and Blair House will remain paved, although its use will be restricted.

A senior administration official said building a vehicle tunnel underneath Pennsyvlania Avenue remains an option.

Another visible change in the White House complex was the prohibition of metered parking on the 17th Street side of the New Executive Office Building.

Though all the changes may sound daunting, Metro Traffic's Mr. Eldridge says he is confident Washington commuters will adapt.

"Three or four weeks from now they may forget there was even a road there," he said.

D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke, berating the federal government for giving little notice of the shutdown, was not so optimistic.

"It's going to be a very difficult situation for traffic down here for a long period of time," he said.

J. Jennings Moss contributed to this report.


The White House announced yesterday plans to make the area surrounding 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue more secure. Whlle that might make President Cllnton and America's most famous address safer, it wlll also make driving through one of the city's most traveled areas more difficult. The most significant change went into effect yesterday morning: the closing of two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue to all but pedestrian traffic.

Other Immediate changes:

Closing a small segment of State Place and South Executive Avenue SW, behind the White House. That change went into effect yesterday.

Banning parking on 15th and 17th streets between Constitution Avenue and K Street. The ban will be effective starting 5 a.m. tomorrow.

Changes that will occur soon:

Making I Street one way westbound between New York and Pennsylvania avenues.

Making H Street one way eastbound between Pennsylvania and New York avenues.

Banning parking on both H and I streets once the one-way designations are finalized.

Making 15th Street between New York Avenue and K Street one way northbound.

Source: D.C Department of Public Works

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park