Report on Pennsylvania
Avenue Closing Hits a Dead End

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer

The full impact of the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue on Washington's economy and traffic congestion will probably never be known, according to a federal report released yesterday.

The Treasury Department report, which took nearly two years to complete and was supposed to analyze some of the economic and transportation effects of the May 1995 closing, was thin in both areas, disappointing some local business and political leaders who were hoping for a more definitive report. The Barry administration declined to comment on the findings.

The report calculated the cost of the closing to the city government at about $412,000 a year in lost parking meter revenue and higher Metrobus expenses. But the potentially greater costs related to lower retail sales and property tax values were not covered. Some firms reportedly are locating their offices away from the downtown area to avoid the traffic there, and some retail businesses have suffered in sales, according to business leaders.

A Treasury spokesman, Howard Schloss, said the report followed federal environmental law, "which does not include such detailed economic impact analysis."

President Clinton shut down the two blocks of Pennsylvania between 15tk and 17th streets NW, along with portions of State Place, South Execuffve Avenue, Madison Place and E Street, to protect the White House from a vehicle bomb. Since then, the closed part of the avenue has become a pedestrian mall. Traffic has been rerouted.

Although yesterday's report said about 26,000 cars were diverted onto streets near Pennsylvania Avenue, it said precise comparisons cannot be made in the degree of tie-ups in the area because there is no information about congestion levels before the closing Anecdotally, commuters, cabdrivers, shoppers and delivery workers say it takes 15 minutes or longer now to travel across downtown.

'We don't dispute the fact there has been an increase in traffic," Schloss said. The Treasury Department reviewed White House security and initially recommended the street closings.

The report tracked heavy increases in traffic on Constitution Avenue; H. I and K streets; and 14th, 18th and 19~ streets. But the level of congestion—how long you have to wait to get through an intersection—is based on data other than traffic counts.

Local business and political leaders said there's nothing scientific about what's happened to downtown traffic.

"I find it incredible they can't substantiate that traffic problems have been created," said Thomas W. Wilbur, president of the District of Columbia Building Industry Association. "The fact is, we would have no trouble getting a long list of people who would testify on an anecdotal basis that it is considerably worse."

Noting that the report lists 15 recommendations for improving traffic operations in the area near the White House, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D D.C.) said, "You can't make recommendations about what to do to improve something if you don't know what it is you're trying to improve."

The report did determine that the District government, already having financial problems, is losing about $98,000 a year in revenue from 49 metered parking spaces that were removed. In addiction, the city's Metrobus costs rose about $314,000 a year be" cause rerouted buses must travel longer distances.

The report identified about 40 potential new locations for parking meters to make up the lost revenue but was silent on ways the city might recover the higher Metrobus costs. Local political leaders have contended the city should be fully reimbursed for al financial effects. Schloss said reimbursement to Metro still is under review.

Despite the administration's help in locating new metered spaces, Norton said the General Services Administration is weighing a separate plan to rob the city of additional parking revenue. Under that proposal, up to 700 parking spaces at as many as 80 public and private buildings in the District would ~ be taken in an attempt to provide better l security around offices used by federal workers.

"As you put more parking meters in place, you have the GSA saying, 'Let's take more out,'" Norton said.

If implemented, the GSA plan would have a far more devastating impact on the city's economy and traffic patterns than the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue, local officials say. GSA officials have said they do not expect to recommend closing off the full 700 spaces.

In other areas, the report was predictable: Vehicle-less Pennsylvania Avenue is quieter, while H and I streets are noisier. The concrete barriers put up to keep vehicles out have an "adverse visual impact." Adjacent historic buildings are crumbling because they're old, not from the vibrations in the street caused by more buses.