WashingtonTimes, June 8, 1996

By M. Cherie Black

Washington Times Staff Writer

Critics yesterday challenged the White House to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue, calling the security concerns that prompted the Secret Service to close the road an overreaction to an isolated situation.

The closing has clogged downtown traffic, cost the District money from lost parking meters and left "America's Main Street" a deserted stretch in front of the White House.

Speakers told the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on the District that if the Secret Service will not relent, President Clinton needs to tell the agency to "get real" and get rid of the barricades that threaten to turn the White House into a fortress.

Sen. Rod Grams, Minnesota Republican, called the decision to close the street May 20, 1995 less than six weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 persons -- "knee-jerk" and "arrogant."

"We'll dig up Pennsylvania Avenue, fill it with water and maybe a few imported alligators and ring it with guards clad in armor and brandishing spears." said Mr. Grams, who is leading the opposition to the closing. "Kings live in castles ... presidents do not."

But Secret Service Director Eljay Bowron insisted that the threat to the president`is as real now as it was when the street was ordered closed.

"The only thing that is preventing the terrorist or extremist from mounting an attack like in Oklahoma is the lack of access." Mr. Bowron told a skeptical subcommittee. "It's not a matter of if, but when someone will enter the White House."

He said all other alternatives have been exhausted, and that keeping the street closed is the only way to protect the White House.

That was echoed by Dennis Galvin, associate director for professional services for the National Park Service.

"The· potential for large-scale destruction exists even within our borders, therefore, we must preserve and protect our most important symbols." he said.

It is the symbolism of a barricaded White House that has galvanized an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to push for a reopening of the road.

Mayor Marion Barry called Mr. Clinton "one of our most gregarious presidents" and urged him to come to the front lines like his predecessors and not try to hide fran the consequences of the job he chose to run for.

White House officials said Mr. Clinton accepted the Secret Services recommendation to close the road only reluctantly.

Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Democrat and a member of the subcommittee, attacked the Secret Service for its efforts to keep the road closed permanently, calling it "unprofessional."

"President Clinton needs to tell [the Secret Service] to 'get real,'" said Mrs. Norton. "He exposed himself to assassination every day -- it comes with the territory. The irony of putting him behind barricades is uncanny'."

She said the attention the Secret Service is creating about this issue only raises the profile of the Whit House, making it even more of a target.

John J. Strauchs, chief executive officer for Systech, an engineering firm that specializes in security, noted that closing one means of entrance to the White House will only force would-be terrorists to use another.

"How much sense would it be to install a steel door in the front of your house and a cardboard door in the back!" he asked.

Mrs. Norton also attacked the street-closing for the traffic problems it has created in downtown Washington.

The Department of Transportation estimates that the District has lost nearly $100,000 in revenue from 49 fewer parking meters in the closed area. Metro has also spent an additional $315,000 as buses are forced to travel around the closed-off area, the study said.

The study said east-west traffic downtown has increased dramatically since the closing of the avenue, which carried about 26,000 vehicles a day. Traffic on Constitution Avenue has increased 50 percent, while H Street traffic went up by 34 percent and I Street had a 31 percent increase.

The National Park Service is beginning a renovation, costing $40 million or more, that would turn the closed section of street into a permanent pedestrian mall.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, called that "a preposterous and extravagant bureaucratic monstrosity."

Chris Whitley contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports

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