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I Drove To Nats Park And Lived To Tell The Tale

"Metro, Metro, Metro," Debra Lerner Cohen told me, and did I listen? The member of the Lerner family charged with getting the word out about how -- and how not-- to get to Nationals Park warned me against driving to the new stadium without a reserved parking space.

But we're car people, and we like a parking challenge. So even before the team plays its first game at its new home, I ventured down to the Southeast Washington waterfront at rush hour to simulate the experience fans will have getting to weekday games after the season starts March 30.

In my search for the best way to the ballpark, I found a vast and mysterious new urban landscape, block after block of fenced-off rubble still on its way to becoming parking lots for season ticket holders only, streets still being paved and striped, and a bewildering web of dead-ends, highway underpasses and jam-packed, backed-up merge lanes.

I sat and sat on the ramp from Interstate 395 onto South Capitol Street, waiting 13 minutes to move half a mile. I cruised residential streets west of the ballpark, looking for lawns, alleys or lots where enterprising neighbors might want to rent me a parking space. But the Syphax Gardens and James Creek housing projects offered precious few parking possibilities. I checked out promisingly empty streets tucked under the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, only to discover johns and ladies of the night doing their business in the open air -- and one no-parking zone after another.

Then I saw the newly expanded Metro station, less than a block from the ballpark. Hmmm.

After decades of building shopping centers designed to make visiting easy-in, easy-out, the Lerners find themselves in the business of telling customers to get out of their cars.

In a broadcast and print ad campaign set to start next week, the Nationals will send fans an emphatic message: If you don't have pre-paid parking, "Don't drive to Nationals Park."

Instead, "declare your independence from ballgame traffic," advises "Thomas Jefferson," who recommends the Nats Express, a free shuttle bus from the free parking the team is providing at RFK Stadium. Fifty buses running continuously from 90 minutes before each game till 90 minutes afterward will be able to handle 7,500 fans.

"Win the race to the game with Metro," adds "Teddy Roosevelt," the perennial also-ran in the Nats' nightly Presidents Race. Metro says it can move 25,000 people through the Navy Yard Station in 45 minutes. (The stadium holds 41,000 fans.)

On the radio, a spot called "Rubbing It In" features a gleeful taunt of a phone conversation between a guy who took Metro to the game and his buddy who is still circling the neighborhood in search of parking. "I just drank the last beer; now they're all out," the smart guy says.

"You've got to change people's behaviors," Cohen said. "We don't want people to drive around in circles muttering in frustration. Our message is Metro, Metro, Metro."

So, Metro. The Navy Yard Station sits barely a home run's trajectory from the entrance gates. But it's on the Green Line, which doesn't reach Northern Virginia or Montgomery County, the two places that account for well over half of the Nats' fan base. That means switching trains at Gallery Place or Fort Totten on the Red Line or L'Enfant Plaza on the Orange, Blue or Yellow lines.

To avoid changing trains, you could get off at Capitol South Station on the Orange and Blue lines. It's a one-mile walk to the stadium, but so far, no signs show the way. Making the 20-minute trek down New Jersey Avenue at dusk, I found a desolate, difficult path along which many street lights are out, sidewalks are not continuous and the passage under the highway and past a vast trash transfer station is downright scary.

D.C. officials insist that they will light and spruce up the route in time for opening night, and Cohen said the owners choose "to believe the city." For now, I'd stick to Navy Yard Station.

If you insist on driving -- Cohen said "a limited number" of the 5,000 spaces near the stadium will be open to drop-in fans -- avoid the Capitol Street exit off I-395 at all costs. Far better for those coming from Virginia and other points west: Take the Maine Avenue exit and zip east on M Street straight to the park. The backup to I-395's Sixth Street SE exit is fearsome, but once you get to the ramp, it's fast and easy to the ballpark. Drivers arriving from the east have a huge advantage -- the trip in against rush-hour traffic via either the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge or I-395 coming from I-295 is relatively smooth.

The good news: This mess is temporary. As soon as next season, the first underground garages built as part of the office and residential district surrounding the stadium are expected to open. But will parking options near the ballpark improve sufficiently before RFK is razed?

Washington won this team with the promise of an urban ballpark that fans would reach largely by mass transit, like the downtown arena where the Wizards and Capitals play. But neither the Lerners nor Major League Baseball knew quite how car-unfriendly the new site would be. The detail-obsessed owners and their staffers in the Transportation Situation Room are making the best of a tough situation; now it's the fans' turn to work out their own strategies.

"There's a learning curve," Cohen said. "But we're focused on giving fans a good first impression. They're going to love the stadium. And if we have a winning team, this whole process will go a lot faster."

To find your way to the stadium, check nationals.com/waytogo.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  February 28, 2008; 6:29 AM ET
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Comments

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Nats are depending on the DC govt and METRO. Oops who thought this is going to work. I figure it will be a FUBAR for at least 90 days. Traffic jams effecting snarling traffic from Fredericksburg to Baltimore and out to at least Winchester. Bathroom lines at the stadium running into VA. At least 20 to 30 murders of fans as a result of armed robberies in the first 2 weeks. Cold food and warm beer. By the All Star break attendance will rival that of the Florida Marlins because of safety cocnerns and traffic. team relocates to Mexico City in 2009 leaving the new stadium to rot.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 28, 2008 7:53 AM

Lemme guess - the 7:53 poster lives in VA, and is just bitter that he can't carry his handgun to the stadium.

Posted by: DCG | February 28, 2008 8:52 AM

I'm a non-gun toting Virginian partially responsible for the state turning purple. We plan to bring our kid up for a game this summer, since we don't want him to become a big R-Braves fan since they are leaving Richmond soon. In all seriousness, how would you advise we get there from Richmond?

Posted by: RiverCityRoller | February 28, 2008 8:55 AM

<<<gun toting Virginia...but not in DC. That would be illegal

How do you "simulate" the experience when you don't have the other 5,000 drivers going to the game as well?

Posted by: VA Boy | February 28, 2008 9:10 AM

"To avoid changing trains, you could get off at Capitol South Station on the Orange and Blue lines. It's a one-mile walk to the stadium, but so far, no signs show the way. Making the 20-minute trek down New Jersey Avenue at dusk, I found a desolate, difficult path along which many street lights are out, sidewalks are not continuous and the passage under the highway and past a vast trash transfer station is downright scary."

Did you actually get out of your car? You can walk on continuous sidewalks from Capitol South to the stadium. The city has installed many new sidewalks in the area in the last year. A year ago I would have agreed, but not now. What's scary about the salt trucks by the trash transfer station? Would you prefer icy streets? This article sounds like drive by journalism. You didn't note that there are many people out walking there dogs in the area in the evening.

Posted by: Near Southeast | February 28, 2008 9:57 AM

You said, "I checked out promisingly empty streets tucked under the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, only to discover johns and ladies of the night doing their business in the open air -- and one no-parking zone after another."

I pass under the freeway frequently and have never once seen any signs of prostitution. You just happen to see multiple examples? When and where were you exactly? Was that just an attempt at humor? Or are you trying to scare people away? Did you report the behavior?

Posted by: SE Rez | February 28, 2008 10:10 AM

No bubba just a realist.If I was going to the games in April I would be carrying my sawed off shotgun underneath my trench coat. Hopefully by the middle of June the Supremes will have overturned DC's gun laws and we can all open carry in DC.

Posted by: 7:53am poster | February 28, 2008 10:20 AM

3 Routes to try if you are coming from Richmond.

1. Get off in Springfield and take the Metro from there.

2. Take 95 across the Wilson Bridge, and continue to Branch Ave, and park at the Branch Ave station and take the Green line directly to the Stadium.

3. Take 95 across the Wilson Bridge then ge t on 295 North and take that to RFK exiting at Benning Rd, and grab one of the free RFK shuttles.

Posted by: Section 114, Row E | February 28, 2008 11:27 AM

This column performed a very useful service to Nats fans. Thanks to Marc Fisher. I hope that Mr. Fisher will go to some games when the season starts, then give us more practical advice as to how transportation is actually working at the stadium.

Posted by: George Hastings | February 28, 2008 11:32 AM

It's not fair to compare success at moving fans at Verizon Center with optimisim about Metro being able to move fans from the new stadium. If 47% of fans arrive at Verizon Center, which seats 16,000, Metro only has to clear about 7,500 passengers from a venue that is accessible to Red, Green, and Yellow lines (plus a couple blocks walk to Orange/Blue lines). At the new Nats stadium, if Metro expects to have 52% of fans arriving by Metro, that is over 20,000 fans to move from a station serving only the Green line. Nowhere close to the same situation.

Posted by: Math Major | February 28, 2008 2:29 PM

"But we're car people, and we like a parking challenge".

Are you as dumb as you sound? Go ahead, sit in your car, burn $4/gallon gas, wear out your car to the tune of ~50 cents/mile and complain about the traffic. No sympathy here. Take the train and don't worry about Mr. 7:53am poster and his shotgun. He sounds to scared to go out 'cause he watches too much Fox, "scary stories at 10" news.

Posted by: thebob.bob | February 28, 2008 4:31 PM

One more ridiculous, alarmist "article" about our neighborhood. Sigh. Hopefully this will keep fans (and their cars) away from my currently easy-to-find street parking.

Posted by: SWester for 5 yrs and counting | February 28, 2008 4:42 PM

D.C. sports fans can get up for 8 NFL games, but baseball has 10 times as many. After the novelty of the new stadium wears off and the reality of going through a long commute (with young kids in tow)sets in, you'll have all these Nats fans talking the talk. Let's see how many will actually GO to the park, not just SAY they're Nats fans. It'll prove the unspoken fear: D. C. is a great football town, and that's where it stops.

Posted by: Harold | February 28, 2008 6:48 PM

I'm a huge baseball fan. I was a Senator's fan and was overjoyed beyond belief when we got a team in DC. But I don't know if I can support the team in this location. I don't mind taking Metro to the game. But I can't spend 2 hours getting home, especially on a weeknight. What a shame that the owners and city are making us jump through hoops for a baseball game. I want to support the team, but they're not making it easy.
And what about the handicapped? They'd have a better chance of getting in the stadium with a helicopter than taking Metro.

Posted by: JMH | February 28, 2008 8:41 PM

There are two solutions to this problem. The first is to get them to institute the use of the Cirulator bus as a shuttle between the stadium and L'Enfant and Gallary Place and the second is to get them to build a stop on the railroad line at South Capitol Street so people can use the VRE to get to and from the games.

Posted by: efl | February 29, 2008 5:23 AM

This topic certainly has inspired a tremendous amount of whining on this website over the past week.

Posted by: Lindemann | February 29, 2008 9:48 AM

Has anyone thought about parking on the Virginia side, then taking a water taxi across the river to the stadium? Not that there are any water taxis or docks just yet, but it seems like they'd be easier to build than to add parking in D.C. Is there any kind of commercial development across the river from the ballpark?

Posted by: thinkthinkthink | February 29, 2008 10:19 AM

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