Traffic snarl averted for day

Street-closing impact to come, officials say

by Brian Reilly and Brian Blomquist

Commuters breezed through a surprisingly easy rush hour yesterday morning, but traffic watchers are still predicting doom and gloom as motorists learn to make do without all of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The road was closed Saturday in front of the White House because of security concerns, but the gridlock it was supposed to have created during rush hour never occurred. Commuters instead found themselves easing through light backups at intersections near the closed-off stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue.

But police and traffic officials said yesterday's smooth going may have resulted from factors that will not exist today: staggered arrival times for federal workers and the normally lower amount of Monday traffic due to some workers taking a long weekend.

The true test is yet to come, they say.

"We can't declare victory. This will be a chronic problem, like it or not," said John Undeland, spokesman for the local chapter of the American Automobile Association.

Many commuters staggered their trips to work to avoid the predicted traffic jams. Federal offices in the District opened at 10 a.m. yesterday to allow for traffic problems.

"I left a little later than usual but will still be on time," said Bill Honeycut, 52, cruising east on I street towards his Connecticut Avenue office about 8:30 a.m.

"But just wait two or three days, and this will all change."

Others left early to work and still others garaged their cars and hopped the Metro.

"I know public transportation, and I know how to walk," said Viola Burley-Leak, a school-teacher who was downright chipper as she walked across what has become the Pennsylvania Avenue plaza in front of the White House.

Traffic reporters, who daily lead commuters through tight spots, credited yesterday's low traffic volume to press reports predicting mayhem.

"The media really stressed the potential problems and a lot of people may have adjusted their departure and arrival time,"' said Steve Eldridge of Metro Traffic Control. "The real surprise is that the morning wasn't that bad."

Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Undeland, a former White House staffer, both said that if they were commuting in from Northern Virginia they would favor the 14th Street corridor and then backtrack toward the White House. But no one wanted to recommend a best-bet route for fear they would provoke a rush.

Already, police are foreseeing problems at two of yesterday's minor bottlenecks: Soon after 8 a.m., traffic lined up on 17th Street south of K Street, while another chain of cars snaked all the way around Washington Circle and continued down 23rd Street.

Police had 17 officers stationed at various intersections to reroute traffic.

Inspector David Bostrom, commander of the 2nd Police District, which includes most of the downtown area west of 14th Street, said Pennsylvania Avenue has been closed regularly for parades and protests, so police were ready.

"But I think we'll see more traffic than normal [today]," he said.

Officer Barbara Rauf had her hands full orchestrating traffic yesterday at 15th Street and Pennsyivania Avenue, where drivers slowed down to gawk at the newly created plaza in front of the White House. Officer Rauf tried to guide motorists who were confused by the street arrows that still directed them yesterday to turn left from 15th Street into a set of concrete barriers and cement flower pots the size of love seats.

"The cops are keeping things clear," said Howard Mortman, 28, as he watched traffic flow along 15th Street.

Police officers will continue directing traffic at problem intersections near the White House until D.C. Department of Public Works crews can switch traffic lights and put up new streetsigns.

A Public Works spokeswoman said traffic lights were re-timed and no-parking signs posted when the Secret Service shut down the street Saturday morning. But she said the department will study traffic patterns for two weeks before making any more changes.

While most motorists appeared to be aware of the road changes, there were other obstacles to complicate the morning commute.

A broken-down Metro bus monopolized the right southbound lane of 17th Street and a two-car fender bender slowed K Street traffic. Construction blocked southbound traffic on part of 15th Street while a television news van did the same on 17th Street.

Drivers, meanwhile, had to keep alert for reporters and photographers who darted into the road to question stalled commuters.

Jackie Ward of Dale City, Va., summed up the commute as she stepped out of her fiance's car at 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday. "The ride in was great today for some odd reason," she said.

Gretchen Lacharite contributed to this report.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park