WASHINGTON – The events surrounding the Inauguration may change traffic patterns this weekend, but some officials say they hope the change will be permanent.
For Saturday’s 54th Presidential Inaugural Parade, the cement barricades on Pennsylvania Avenue will be removed for only the second time since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing prompted officials to secure the street in front of the White House.
The Department of Treasury, which presides over the Secret Service, and a bipartisan panel armed with two scientific studies persuaded President Clinton to quarantine the complex for fear of terrorist threat after a truck bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people.
Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th streets acts as a pedestrian mall: six lanes of pavement, bracketed at both ends by cement barricades and security kiosks.
Opening Pennsylvania Avenue for the parade has been a uniform part of the detour plans since its early stages, said Jim Mackin, a spokesman for the Secret Service. Security measures are more easily implemented when the street is closed to traffic.
“We have control over what’s in the parade,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to sweep the cars and the crowd.”
With at least 6,800 law enforcement officers from 16 federal and local agencies, security will be tight at the events. The Inaugural parade, the first to require spectators to pass through police checkpoints, is expected to draw 20,000 demonstrators among 150,000 total spectators.
Some officials said the avenue must remain open even after the parade.
“The Secret Service, for all intents and purposes, is the last word on permanent denial of public access in this and every jurisdiction in the United States,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). “They always intended to put on a show for the Inauguration and then go back to a Soviet-type approach.”
Norton said the avenue’s importance extends beyond transportation.
“It’s not only America’s Mainstreet, it’s the district’s mainstreet,” Norton said. “It sends a message we are becoming a police state.”
The corridor last was opened for Bill Clinton Inaugural events.
The street should have been closed temporarily after the Oklahoma City bombing, but never permanently, Norton said.
“It’s the broadest street in the District,” she said. “It’s appearance is a disgrace to the Capitol of the United States.”
Washington Mayor Anthony Williams is committed to reopening the three-block area.
“We’re working to find a solution that balances safety and convenience,” he said.
Among the ideas to bolster a safe passage on Pennsylvania Avenue are narrowing the avenue, increasing electronic surveillance, instituting time of day restrictions, adding low pedestrian bridges to block large vehicles and bowing the street further from the compound.
Officials hope Bush will continue to be supportive of the campaign to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue, said Ken Sparks, executive vice president of the Federal City Council.
“The Republican platform calls for the reopening,” Sparks said. “I’m sure the Secret Service will try to persuade him otherwise.”
Williams aides said the mayor plans to meet with Bush soon after the Inauguration to discuss the avenue.
“President-elect Bush understands the importance of Pennsylvania Avenue to district motorists while the people of the district understand the need to protect the president and his family,” Williams said.
But closing Pennsylvania Avenue for almost six years has reached beyond government security; it has congested travel in the city and bruised the environment, critics said.
“It was one of the major east-west arteries,” said Sue Porter, director of tourism with the DC Chamber of Commerce.
The rerouted path guides 29,000 cars to already crowded areas of the district.
The concentration of additional cars in an already stuffy route adds pollution to the city, Norton said.
But while it has congested travel in the district, closing this three-block stretch has not thwarted DC tourism directly, Porter said.
Compounding the status of Pennsylvania Avenue, the City of Washington, DC, controls the street and the National Park Service controls the sidewalk, said Earle Kittleman, spokesman for the National Park Service.
The Park Service prepared a plan to redesign the section of Pennsylvania Ave. between 15th and 17th streets, Kittleman said. The National Capitol Planning Commission curtailed the plan in 1997 and instructed the Park Service to suspend further planning.
The Park Service redesign allowed for high security during the Inaugural Parade, he said.
The parade will not be a breach in security around the White House, Mackin said. Following the final participant in the parade, the barricades will be returned to block Pennsylvania Avenue.
Security officials will continue briefing President George W. Bush about the avenue, Mackin said.
But despite hopes from city leaders that Bush will be more open to Pennsylvania Avenue’s opening, the cement pylons are likely to remain after they are restored Saturday.
But that will not stop officials from trying, Norton said.
“There will never be zero risk in an open society.”