- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

The design of D.C. streets — as envisioned by L’Enfant and Banneker — has yielded to road closures that have frustrated drivers and city planners alike.

In the past decade, several crosstown routes have been cut off under federally imposed security restrictions. Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, which used to carry 30,000 vehicles per day, has become a bollard-studded sidewalk.

Most recently, First Street NE between Constitution Avenue and D Street has been closed to vehicular traffic. The road, which runs between the Russell and Dirksen Senate office buildings, was closed Aug. 2 when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security heightened the terror alert level in the District to Code Orange.

During the heightened terror alert that ended Wednesday, Capitol Police erected a network of 14 vehicle checkpoints on nearby streets. Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford, a Capitol Police spokeswoman, said police had decided to dismantle the checkpoints on Wednesday and confirmed that they were removed early yesterday.

However, Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said this week he anticipates that the closure of First Street NE will be permanent.

Bill Rice, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of Transportation, said local transportation officials had no notice of the First Street closure and have had to scramble to redirect traffic each time another road is closed.

“The kind of things we change when a street gets closed are everything you can think of — traffic lights, bus routes, parking,” Mr. Rice said.

Asked whether transportation officials were anticipating more federally imposed road closures, Mr. Rice said, “Anything can happen.”

Although local officials have complained loudly, there is little they can do to fight the inconvenience. According to the D.C. Code, the federal government has the authority to close any streets in the District that “belong to or are under the care of the United States.”

The code, which grants the mayor exclusive jurisdiction over all other public roads and bridges, predates home rule and has been used to justify traffic restrictions that have congested routes around the city in the past decade.

Capitol Police considered invoking those rights to close Constitution and Independence avenues after the September 11 attacks. They dropped the plan because of congressional opposition.

The city plan was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, who was selected by George Washington in 1791. L’Enfant and his assistant, Benjamin Banneker, laid out a grid pattern of streets intersected by wide diagonal avenues.

Although he presumably was not anticipating the advent of the automobile, L’Enfant designed the avenues broad enough to accommodate the flow of modern-day vehicle traffic across the city.

But stemming the flow of traffic on one avenue puts stress on the surrounding roadways, contributing to traffic congestion across the grid.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report released earlier this year, D.C. commuters spent more time in traffic in 2002 than commuters in all but two other cities in the United States.

The report also said the figures for the Washington area — the highest for any East Coast city — were trending upward. Local commuters spent an average of 21 hours in congested traffic in 1982 and 48 hours in delays in 1992.

The most contentious road closure was the April 1995 closure of Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House. It was closed by President Clinton a month after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Nominally, the road is closed “indefinitely,” rather than permanently. But a “reversible” pedestrian walkway with security checkpoints and metal barricades that opened Tuesday is unlikely to be removed soon.

Security concerns also justified road closures after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

On Sept. 16, 2001, Capitol Police closed C Street from Washington Avenue SW to First Street SE, South Capitol Street from C Street to Independence Avenue and New Jersey Avenue from C Street to Independence Avenue SE.

On the same day, the Secret Service closed E Street from 15th Street to 17th Street on the south side of the White House. That road, which was temporarily closed and reopened after the Oklahoma City bombings, carried about 30,000 vehicles a day — about the same volume as Pennsylvania Avenue.

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