Gridlock Predicted In Heart of Downtown

By Stephen C Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer

The permanent closing yesterday of Pennsylvania Avenue NW in front of the White House, a section of one of the city's main crosstown arteries, could snarl traffic for weeks on surrounding streets as tens of thousands of vehicles--from taxicabs to buses to ambulances to private cars--try to navigate around the heart downtown Washington.

The two-block, six-lane piece of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House often is busy during morning and evening rush hours, as well as at midday and on weekends because of tourist travel. It is a vital link for dozens of buses, hundreds of cabdrivers and thousands of commuters and city residents.

Beyond its impact on commuters and other drivers--about 26,000 vehiclles passed the White House each day--the closing of the street will make ripples in the lives of those who live in and visit the nation's capital.

Gone now is the chance to drive the visiting relative from Missouri past 1600 Pennsylvania. Or to hop in a cab and get to Georgetown quickly for dinner. Or be taken in a hury by ambulance to George Washington university Hospital. But the inaugural parade still will follow its normal route, officials, said, noting they would reopen the avenue for that quadrennial event.

Nowhere, however, will the effect be feit more quickly than during the daily drives of Maryland and Virginia commuters who will have to find new routes on already congested streets.

Local officials are bracing for a difficult rush hour tomorrow morning, With federal workers being given an extra hour to get to work.

Traffic experts advised commuters to avoid 15th and 17th streets and to try other nearby north-south, streets to get to work. Closing any street in an urban downtown is difficult, but Pennsylvania Avenute is especially troublesome because it is one of only a few east-west arteries in a city planned 205 years ago with very few.

With the closing of Pennsylvania between 15th and 17th streets, traffic experts are concerned about the Potential for backups on those two streets, which aiready are congested with 30,000 to 35,000 vehicles daily.

Curbside parking will be eliminated along 15th and 17th streets between Constitution Avenue and K Street NW, D.C. public works officials announced yesterday, freeing up an additional lane in each direction on both streets. Additional traffic~control measures, including making H Street a one-way street in the eastbound direction and I Street a one-way street westbound, are being considered by city officials.

D.C. council chairman David A. Clarke, who was informed of the closing by Treasury Secretary Robert B. Rubin just hours before it took place, predicted that traffic in the area tomorrow will be "horrendous."

"I expressed some reservations and concerns," Clark said. What will work for taking care of the traffic problem has not been planned yet."

The official closings that went into effect yesterday included:
Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th streets NW is open only to authorized government vehicles. The Metrobus X2 route, which now uses the part of Pennsylvania between Madison Place and 15th Street, still will operate there. All other Metrobus routes that cross Pennsylvania in front of the White House--Metrobus's busiest routes--are being diverted to H Street NW.

State Place and a section of South Executive Avenue that connects to it is closed. This is the short, winding street behind the Old Executive Office Building that allows westbound traffic to get to those streets on E Street, which will be converted from a one-way street in the east-bound direction to a two-way street.

A preview of tomorrow's confusion came early yesterday when the Secret Service closed off vehicle access around the White House to put up concrete barriers. Vehicles traveling east on Pennsylvania Avenue came to uncertain halts at 17th Street and paused, the drivers seemingly pondering their next move And inbound New York Avenue traffic turning north on 15th Street to avoid Pennsylvania was snarled for two blocks.

"This decision is going to have far reaching ripple effects as drivers try to do an end run around the nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue," said John Undeland, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association's Potomac chapter.

The fear is that traffic that usually travels east to west across the city on Pennsylvania will now spill onto already heavily traveled roads such as H, I and K streets, Constitution Avenue and 14th Street as drivers look for alternative routes.

"You don't want to be down there now in rush hour. If I have a choice, I'm going to avoid it," taxi driver Emile A. Ashwood said, adding that he and other taxi drivers will now face a choice of driving in the "traffic mess" on Constitution Avenue or the "traffic mess" on 14th Street.

"Any time you take a detour, it slows you down," said a D.C. fire department officer who did not want to be named. Said another firefighter "K Street during rush hour? You can forget it. And closing Pennsylvania will only make K Street worse."

Mary M. Johnston, who lives about 10 blocks from the White House and uses Pennsylvania Avenue every day, said: "It is only a minor inconvenience to change my preferred route across town; however, the additional congestion in the White House area will be unmanageable. Even without blocking this major thoroughfare, cars crawl at a snail's pace in that area due to poor traffic management."

A panel appointed by the Clinton administration to review White House security said it considered the traffic impact but "is not able to identify any alternative to prohibiting vehicular traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue that would ensure the protection of the president and others ... from explosive devices carried by vehicles near the perimeter.

Treasury Secretary Rubin, who advised President Clinton to close the street, said yesterday that "Traffic experts assured us that with proper implementation, the neighboring streets could accommodate the diverted traffic." The Secret Service is part of the Treasury Department.

Steve Eldridge, assistant operations director of Metro Traffic Networks, which supplies traffic information to many radio and TV stations in the Washington area, said yesterday, You're taking six lanes of traffic away, so yes, it's going to have an impact. It will be an inconvenience, but people always adapt in these situations after a few weeks. They'll probably like this better than the potential tragedy.

The director of Metro's bus and rail operations, Fady P. Bassily, said yesterday that the transit agency's bus supervisors are backing off earlier predictions of increased travel time for buses. The 30 series of bus routes, Metrobus's busiest, will be diverted onto H Street for now, he said, as will routes 80 and 81, which run between Fort Totten and the Kennedy Center.

"we're watching it very carefully, but the expectation from our street supervisors is that we'll keep the same headways," or waiting time between buses, Bassily said.

Although District officials have developed a traffic management plan, the only part of it that will be in effect tomorrow will be the parking prohibition on 15th and 17th streets.

"We're trying to see how traffic will distribute itself in the next few days," said Linda Grant, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works. "We want to see what will happen before any additional phase of the plan gets put in place."

Officials are considering changing 15th Street into a oneway street northbound between New York Avenue and K Street, which would help incoming traffic being diverted around Pennsylvania to H, I and K streets.

The most controversial part of the plan would be the change in the direction of I and H streets. Currently, I Street is one-way in the eastbound direction between New York and Pennsylvania avenues NW. H Street runs in both directions. Under the plan, I Street would be changed to one-way in the westbound direction, and H Street would be one-way eastbound.

City traffic engineers pushed a similar plan in 1972, but it was rejected because of opposition from parking garages.

Some people complained yesterday about the surprise nature of the street closings. They said the White House should have given more warning so people would have time to adjust.

Fortunately, "they did it over the weekend to limit the discomfort," said Robert Brannum, president of the Bloomingdale Civic Association in Northwest Washington, who met with Treasury Department officials.

"But it could have been done with greater sensitivity," he said. "The citizens of the District of Columbia should not wake up in the morning and find out that one of their major thoroughfares has been closed without any citizen involvement."

Secret Service Director Eljay B. Bowron said that the agency did not want to tempt someone to bomb the White House before the street was closed.

"We wanted to move before they did," he said.

Staff Writers Marcia Slacum Greene, Avis Thomas-Lester and Steve Vogel contributed to this report.

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