- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

D.C. officials criticized the federal government yesterday for not consulting them before closing a downtown thoroughfare and staging checkpoints that have slowed traffic around the Capitol — the third time since the September 11 attacks that national security has trumped the city government when closing streets.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council members Sharon Ambrose and Carol Schwartz expressed their displeasure at a press conference yesterday beside a closed-off section of First Street NE.

They said U.S. Capitol Police disregarded D.C. residents, businesses and tourists by imposing traffic restrictions without consulting city leaders. The impediments, they said, will hurt the rebounding economy and force traffic into Capitol Hill neighborhoods, where residents include children and the elderly.

“We just want to put everybody in the House and Senate on notice that we will never accept the closure of streets simply as a knee-jerk reaction,” said Mrs. Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional delegate. “It is dangerous to shut off access to a major portion of any street in any big city.”

Mrs. Norton called the road closure a “draconian, last-resort solution.”

She also said, “We are fighting to preserve security and freedom, not one or the other.”

Capitol Police early yesterday closed the heavily traveled First Street NE between Constitution Avenue and D Street and set up the checkpoints to inspect every vehicle passing near the Capitol. Officials said they had planned the changes for years and that the moves were only partly in response to the elevated terror alert in New Jersey, New York and the District.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said when announcing the changes on Monday that he expected a backlash from city officials but that security around the Capitol takes precedent.

He said Monday night that the checkpoints likely will remain in place until after the Nov. 2 general election or until after the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration. He also said the First Street closure could continue indefinitely.

He declined yesterday to respond to the comments by city officials.

Traffic tie-ups on Capitol Hill frustrated morning commuters who watched as officers stopped and inspected every vehicle at checkpoints at First and Second streets and on Constitution, Independence, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania avenues.

Metro officials have advised bus riders to expect delays because of detoured routes around Capitol Hill.

Capitol Police Sgt. Devin Gildea said officers will inspect every vehicle without exception. Yesterday, an officer with an assault rifle was inside a Metro bus at a checkpoint.

“The officers are doing an outstanding job, and the people coming in have been very understanding,” Sgt. Gildea said.

The driver of a work van who had to open a rear compartment for a search said the experience was “not bad” and that the checkpoint stop took only a couple of seconds. At midday, most vehicles appeared to spend about five seconds at a checkpoint.

Silver Wosu, a 65-year-old taxi driver who was picking up fares in Capitol Hill, said the changes are necessary.

A Capitol Hill business employee disagreed.

“It was aggravating getting here,” said Bonnie Ryan, a bartender at the Tune Inn Restaurant. “You have to go all the way around the checkpoints.”

Mrs. Norton and Mr. Williams, both Democrats, have opposed the permanent closure of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, which was blocked to traffic after the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

After the September 11 attacks, the federal government also closed a section of E Street adjacent to the White House and a section of First Street in Southeast beside the Capitol office buildings.

Mr. Williams said yesterday said the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House continues to hurt downtown business and the District’s tourist trade. He also said more closings will add to the problem.

Although Mr. Williams said he understood the need for tighter security, he thinks city officials should be consulted.

“This is a living, breathing city,” he said. “You cannot continue to close streets without dealing death to this city [and] commerce in this city.”

The street closure and checkpoints coincided with the Metropolitan Police Department’s heightened security at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings, after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s announcement on Sunday that “unusually specific” intelligence indicated the al Qaeda terrorists were planning attacks on five financial institutions. The Capitol was not included among the announced targets.

Mr. Ridge increased the terrorist threat level for the institutions from Code Yellow to Code Orange, indicating a “high” alert status. Mr. Williams and D.C. police also raised the city’s alert level to Code Orange on Sunday.

Mrs. Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat, said D.C. transportation officials have been resisting the federal government’s efforts to seal off the Capitol since the September 11 attacks and that federal officials used the Code Orange alert as an excuse to implement the plan.

“What is so awful about this is that it was so sneaky,” said Mrs. Ambrose, who represents all of Capitol Hill. “I very much resent having this sneaked in here in the middle of the night under an orange blanket.”

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