- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

D.C. residents and visitors celebrating Independence Day may have to choose between clogged streets and crowded Metro trains this weekend. But following tradition, hundreds of thousands are expected to head downtown to picnic on the Mall or watch the Fourth of July fireworks.

Metro, bracing for its first major event since the deadly June 22 Red Line crash, cautioned riders to expect “crowded conditions” and “long lines.”

Trains on the Red Line are now operating at normal speeds, except in the area where last month’s crash occurred.

John B. Townsend II, a manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic, recommends revelers take public transportation. But riders who typically switch from wheels to tracks at the Red Line’s Silver Spring Station, for example, might choose to drive about eight miles to the Greenbelt station instead and take the Green Line, Mr. Townsend said.

“It’s going to be a little bit slow this year because of the recent crash,” he said.

The good news for travelers is that, unlike in previous years, the Smithsonian station - close to the Mall and served by the Orange and Blue lines - will be open. It will be reserved for those arriving from 6 p.m. to around 9:10 p.m. - the beginning of the fireworks - and for those departing afterward.

But to avoid excessive crowds, Metro and U.S. Park Police suggest using Farragut North, Union Station and Judiciary Square stations on the Red Line, and Federal Center SW and Capitol South on the Blue and Orange lines.

“We are encouraging people to spread out and use other stations,” Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

Metro expects about half a million riders Saturday - a light number compared with the 750,000 to 800,000 commuters the system carries every weekday, Mr. Taubenkibel said. But those customers will crowd the same downtown stretch.

Scheduled track maintenance will be on hold for the holiday weekend, but that will not have a negative affect on safety, Mr. Taubenkibel said. All units of the D.C. police will be on duty, he said. “We will be prepared.”

Roads in and around the Mall, including Memorial Bridge, will be closed starting at 6 a.m. Saturday.

Across the region, fewer people will be traveling by car this holiday weekend because of increasing gas prices and lower air fares, Mr. Townsend said.

An estimated 859,000 area residents are expected to drive 50 miles or more from home, he said, down 2.2 percent from last year.

“Some people are saying, ‘If air fare is so cheap, maybe I should just fly,’ ” Mr. Townsend said.

The three D.C.-area airports are projected to see 48,000 Fourth of July fliers, AAA predicts, up 6 percent from last year.

For those staying near the District, the main event will be the celebration on the Mall.

The National Weather Service forecast cloudy skies with a high near 87 degrees and low of 66 in the evening. There is, however, a 50 percent chance of evening showers and thunderstorms.

The warm weather and the fact that the holiday falls on a Saturday this year will likely contribute to a higher number of visitors, said Sgt. David Schlosser of the U.S. Park Police.

“We expect a good-size crowd,” he said.

This year, checkpoints will screen all visitors only between about 14th Street and the Lincoln Memorial, Sgt. Schlosser said. Elsewhere, police will use different methods - from high-tech to manpower - to monitor the crowd.

“We can create a more open atmosphere without decreasing our security posture, he said.

The opening of the Smithsonian station is the “most substantial change” of the new strategy, Sgt. Schlosser said.

As in previous years, fireworks, firearms, barbecue grills, glass bottles and alcoholic beverages are prohibited on the Mall, but visitors are encouraged to bring liquids in plastic bottles or cans.

“My strong recommendation is that they bring plenty of water,” Sgt. Schlosser said.

And pooches are best left at home. “The poor dogs are miserable out in the hot sun,” Sgt. Schlosser said..

The D.C. Department of Transportation will use the increased traffic volume to test its emergency evacuation plans.

“It gives us a chance to fine-tune our procedures for a real evacuation and a real emergency,” department spokesman John Lisle said.

Operation Fast Forward will adjust traffic lights on five emergency routes, including stretches of Georgia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut avenues, and 14th and K streets.

“The reason we’re doing it on the Fourth of July,” Mr. Lisle said, “is because we have a tremendous volume of traffic.”

Sarah Abruzzese contributed to this report.

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