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D.C. ‘nightmare’ looms for inauguration

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Area business and government leaders warned Monday that the District is not prepared to handle the record crowds expected to converge on the capital for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

At a briefing organized by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the leaders expressed concern that the District will be overwhelmed by the influx and that visitors will find shortfalls in everything from milk and bread to parking for an estimated 10,000 buses. Even cell phone reception could be hampered by a lack of transmission towers.

Between 4 million and 5 million visitors are expected during the four-day inaugural celebration next month. That number represents about 20 percent of the 20 million visitors who came to Washington during all of last year, said Board of Trade President Jim Dinegar.

As a result, Mr. Dinegar said, the inauguration will be "a logistical nightmare."

As many as 5,000 buses have been registered to enter the District that week, and the city is trying to prepare for an additional 5,000, Mr. Dinegar said.

Metro will open at 4 a.m. on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, said Steve Kral, senior policy adviser to the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, but business leaders worried that the extra hour will not be enough to handle the high volume of visitors.

Employees for caterers, hotels, vendors and other service industries will need to start their commutes even earlier to beat the crowds and clear security checkpoints, which the Secret Service has yet to fully map out, Mr. Kral said.

Restaurants can expect delays in food deliveries, hotel guests can expect slow broadband Internet service during peak hours, and tourists can expect to encounter crowds of evening commuters as they make their way to inaugural balls at rush hour, said Charlie Fisher, vice president for strategic advisory services for James Lee Witt Associates, a Washington-based disaster preparedness and response firm.

Mr. Fisher advises area residents to stay home if possible during the celebration rather than trying to navigate through the crowds, and suggested working from home on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 19 as well as on Inauguration Day to avoid the crush of visitors.

Most Washington area hotel rooms were booked weeks ago, but 1,500 rooms had opened up inside the Beltway and 3,000 rooms were available outside the Beltway as of Monday, said Bill Hanbury, president of Destination D.C., the city's travel and tourism agency.

The room rates are not cheap, Mr. Hanbury said, and cannot be found online through travel sites such as Expedia and Orbitz. Visitors can call Destination D.C. directly and ask about hotel availability, he said.

The desperate and cost-conscious can turn to online classified ad site Craigslist.org, where area residents are offering houses, apartments and rooms for rent during the inaugural festivities. Mr. Hanbury said more than 1,000 rentals were available Monday on Craigslist.

Because many visitors will not be staying in hotels, grocery stores will need to stockpile adequate supplies of bread, milk and other basics, Mr. Fisher said.

Tourism is expected to remain strong even after the inaugural crowds disperse, Mr. Hanbury said. Record numbers of visitors are expected for Abraham Lincoln's birthday bicentennial in February, as well as Presidents Day weekend and the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

One of the city's most important goals for the inaugural is to have visitors leave with a good impression of the city, Mr. Hanbury said.

"It's not just about the inauguration. At the end of the day, it's about economic development," he said. "This does not end on January 20."

"These are really exciting times for D.C.," Mr. Hanbury said.