Transportation system passes biggest stress test on Inauguration Day
By Michael Dresser and Gus G. Sentementes
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Michelle and President Barack Obama dance at the Commander in Chief's ball in Washington, D.C., Tuesday evening. (Tribune photo by Nancy Stone)
Traffic backed up on the Capital Beltway starting about 3 a.m. Washington subway riders were packed together like Tokyo commuters. Lines at some stations forced would-be riders to wait for hours amid the crowds seeking to return home after witnessing the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
But overall, the transportation system in the Washington region appeared to have passed with flying colors its biggest-ever stress test - moving more than 1 million people to the National Mall and inaugural parade route and getting them home.
"Metro certainly did a pretty good job," said Gene Ransom III, a Queen Anne's County commissioner who left his Kent Island home early in the morning for the inaugural. "They did a good job getting people out there and a good job getting them back."
Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari was pleased that the evening return trip was off to a good start.
"Roadways are still lighter than usual and working very well," Porcari said. He said the Maryland Transit Administration had found a way to add an early MARC train departing about 2 p.m. that wasn't on the schedule - allowing some lucky riders an early return.
Maryland transportation officials, watching the progress of traffic yesterday morning on a bank of monitors at the State Highway Administration's operations center in Anne Arundel County, expressed surprise and elation at how few vehicles were on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 95 and the Virginia bridges.
"People were leaving very, very early so the traffic spread out," said State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen. "We didn't have the jam we feared."
In fact, the worst congestion to be seen from the high-tech center was nowhere near Washington. It was the familiar backup that afflicts the western side of the Baltimore Beltway each workday morning.
About 10:30 a.m., Nelson Castellanos, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, walked into the operations center and gazed at the television screens focused on the Capital Beltway's western crossing of the Potomac in amazement.
"There is no traffic on the American Legion Bridge," he exclaimed. "We should have an inauguration more often."
That did not mean the day was free of trials, discomfort and hours of waiting for those who decided to be part of a moment in history.
After the inaugural, as expected, Metro riders encountered a series of closings and reopenings of stations in the downtown area as officials tried to relieve crowding. But the long lines and crowds outside the stations were not seen on the platforms because Metro officials strictly controlled access for safety reasons, said Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority spokesman Steve Taubenkibel.
The day's worst disruption occurred at 9:25 a.m. when a woman fell off the platform at the Chinatown-Gallery Place station, temporarily closing the Red Line. Taubenkibel said the woman was saved from being hit by a train by Elliot Swainson, a Houston transit police officer in town to help local officers. The spokesman said that Swainson was able to move the woman under the platform edge before a train rumbled through and that officers were able to remove her from the tracks shortly afterward. The woman was taken to a hospital with injuries not considered life-threatening.
Passengers returning to Union Station in the evening faced waits of an hour or more to get into the transit hub to catch Metro, MARC and Amtrak trains. National Guard troops lined the streets shoulder-to-shoulder to prevent people from swarming the station or walking in the streets.
Yesterday morning, Ransom and his father, Gene Ransom Jr., encountered an hour's wait to get a parking space at New Carrollton and another hour or so of waiting to be admitted to the station platform. But the Queen Anne's commissioner, an early Obama supporter and Maryland Democratic elector, said they had no trouble boarding a train at the Eastern Market station after the swearing-in.
"The ride was 10 times easier," he said. The Ransoms encountered little traffic after getting back to New Carrollton and pulled into their driveway about 3:20 p.m. - much earlier than they had expected.
Pedersen said the worst of the morning jams occurred in the wee hours as motorists began lining up on the Capital Beltway to park at Metro stations.
The highway chief said the lines to the Greenbelt Metro station began forming about 3 a.m. He said traffic began backing up into the roadway because there was only one person on duty to collect the $4 parking charge.
After Maryland officials warned of a developing safety hazard, WMATA agreed to waive tolls at its stations along the Beltway, Pedersen said.