Two local members of Congress yesterday called on President Bush to reopen a street near the White House that was closed September 11 in response to the terrorist attacks, saying there is no longer reason to keep it closed.
Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative, wrote in a letter to Mr. Bush there is a sufficient “stand-off” distance of 800 feet between E Street NW and the rear of the White House. They also said keeping E Street closed creates traffic congestion and pollution.
E Street between 15th and 17th streets NW was closed to westbound traffic in 1995 because of security concerns. It was expanded to four lanes and reopened to two-way traffic last year, and handled about 23,000 vehicles a day before being closed September 11, government officials said.
In the letter, Mrs. Morella and Mrs. Norton said they initially approved the closing of the street, but were concerned about how long it would remain closed.
“We agree that it was appropriate to close E Street on September 11th and for some time afterwards, and we appreciate the necessity to take certain steps to protect the District during this time of heightened alert,” Mrs. Morella and Mrs. Norton wrote in the letter.
“[We] are concerned that E Street not become another Pennsylvania Avenue, the city’s major east-west artery that was “temporarily” closed for security reasons more than six years ago. We urge you to reopen E Street without further delay.”
Mrs. Morella is the chairman of the House subcommittee on the District of Columbia, and Mrs. Norton is the ranking member of the subcommittee.
“There is no danger from what we have been told by authorities [in keeping E Street open]. We are getting paranoid about what could happen,” Mrs. Morella said in an interview yesterday. “To say that we need to have an ever-expanding bubble around the White House we’ll soon be covering the entire city.”
A Secret Service spokesman said yesterday he could not comment on the letter. The agency has said the street’s closure is monitored on a day-to-day basis; it has called the move “temporary.”
Former President Bill Clinton ordered the two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House closed a month after the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. At the time, the avenue handled 29,000 vehicles a day.
The Secret Service, which had been urging the road closure since the Truman presidency, says Pennsylvania Avenue must remain closed because of the threat of a truck bomb similar to the one used in Oklahoma City.
A National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) interagency task force recommended Nov. 1 that the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue remain closed, given the increased security concerns after September 11.
But the task force’s report called for the reopening of E Street. Its chairman, former NCPC Chairman Richard L. Friedman, said yesterday he sees no reason that E Street should remain closed.
“It’s an important artery for the city,” Mr. Friedman said. “Frankly, from our perspective, nobody has given us a concrete reason as to why it shouldn’t be reopened.”
But sources say the Secret Service wants E Street permanently closed because the agency fears a biological-weapons attack in which passing cars could spill anthrax or small pox.
Mr. Friedman said when the task force made its recommendation to keep Pennsylvania Avenue closed, it assumed E Street would be opened.
“They are essentially using it as a parking lot” Mr. Friedman said of E Street, adding that he will soon send a letter to the Secret Service, with a copy to the White House, expressing his group’s “dismay” at E Street’s continued closure.
And Mrs. Norton and Mrs. Morella say keeping E Street closed only adds to the image that the District is closed for business.
“We do not want to see the nation’s capital turned into a veritable ‘Fort Washington.’”