The White House Snarl

By Ron Shaffer

Washington Post Staff Writer

Of all the streets in the metropolitan area, Dr. Gridlock is hearing more complaints about one than any other. That would be I Street NW in downtown Washington.

I Street was converted to one-way westbound last year after President Clinton confiscated Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to enhance his safety.

The result, predictably, is congestion throughout the day on I Street, particularly in the evening when Virginia residents head for the bridges. The street can't handle the traffic, and the commute is further complicated by several obstacles.

Reader complaints include lights out of sync (particularly on I at 18th and 19th streets), useless left and right turn arrows (at Vermont, 15th and 17th streets); motorists allowed to park illegally, narrowing the street; a vendor taking up a key left turn lane (at 19th Street).

The District of Columbia government never wanted to close Pennsylvania Avenue. When the Secret Service raised some security concerns last year, "we said we didn't want to close it because of the impact on traffic," said the city's chief traffic engineer, Gary Burch. After the bombing in Oklahoma City a year ago, federal officials, with the president's blessing, closed Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th streets NW. "We never did agree to it, but there was nothing we could do," Burch said. "Most of the city's streets are still titled to the federal government."

So the city made H Street one-way east and I Street one-way west to compensate for the loss of a major cross-town artery. It isn't working very well. Commuters report that using H or I streets or any other route around the White House has added 10 minutes to 15 minutes each way to their trip. Thank you, Mr. President.

Many security threats, such as a gunman climbing over the White House fence or shots fired at the White House or, say, a plane crashing into the White House grounds—acts that have occurred during this administration—are not lessened by closing Pennsylvania Avenue. And the U.S. Congress remains vulnerable to a truck bomb because its office buildings are closer to the street than the White House.

Dr. Gridlock asked Burch what the federal government is doing to help resolve the mess it created. "We asked the Federal Highway Administration to evaluate what we have done," Burch said. "We're still waiting. They keep saying, 'Soon.' "

Since the feds own the streets, perhaps they could provide some support, like federal officers directing traffic at key intersections, or writing tickets on illegally parked cars.

Burch said the city has been looking at I Street and may, in the coming weeks, add a left-turn lane onto 19th Street, adjust some signal timing and eliminate some needless turn signals.

He said he and Gwen Mitchell, who is in charge of parking, could meet to determine whether to prohibit parking an extra hour, until 7:30 p.m., as some readers have suggested. Mitchell, when alerted to particular problems, has been pretty good about responding.

While we await this help, and while the president is moving around on Air Force One and in limousines we can hope a day comes when we will no longer be receiving letters like these:

Parking Contributes to Jam

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I can no longer stand the disaster of the one-way I Street at rush hour. I tried to be understanding when they first closed Pennsylvania Avenue, figuring the District might take a while to get the lights timed well. But this is ridiculous.

In the afternoon, traffic from McPherson Square (where I exit my building) is bumper to bumper in every lane of I Street up to 19th Street, starting before 5 p.m. and lasting until after 7.

Allowing people to park at meters on I Street at 6:30 p.m., long before the traffic is gone, reduces motorists to three or two lanes. Sadly, this problem includes the vendors at the corner of 19th and I, who have patiently waited and finally pulled up their vans to load their wares at 6:30, shutting down that crucial left-turn lane.

As I write this in my office at 7 p.m., I am wondering whether I'm prepared to spend 20 minutes or more trying to get my car out of the garage and onto I Street. Then I must fight my way across three lanes of traffic in a few blocks and hope the vendors at 19th Skeet are not blocking the lane when I get there, so I can then head home.

Is there any hope for us?


Return to Park