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Inauguration Island: Did Bridges Need To Be Closed?

The National Guard assigned two buddies from North Carolina to man the sidewalk at 16th and L streets NW while their country got itself a new president, and so, for 10 hours, the guys stood there with not a thing to do. By midday, the guardsmen had made a friend, a bushy-tailed squirrel they trained to eat nuts from their hands.

Even if a few thousand guardsmen did little more than decorate the street corners, the inauguration of Barack Obama came off beautifully Tuesday. A happy crowd overlooks inconveniences that might grate against Washington's angry visitors, the protesters who more commonly populate our mass gatherings.

And there surely were some inconveniences, but there was also a certain joy in watching the high and mighty have to queue up like the rest of us. (Oh, goodness, poor Samuel L. Jackson had to wait in traffic, leading the actor to sling some choice words at a Secret Service officer. Such pain, such sorrow.)

It took 58 agencies to plan the logistics for Inauguration Day, and sometimes it showed. Ask the poor folks who thought they had it made with purple or silver tickets to the Forbidden City, only to find that the federal security apparatus is balky without regard to one's station in life. Thousands of inaugural ticket holders ended up trudging back to their hotels and settling for a plate of presidential pomp drenched in Blitzerian blather.

But even under the severe rules imposed by the outgoing administration's vast Homeland Security bureaucracy, sparks of creativity made things easier: The District imported rickshaws from across the country, and although many pedicab drivers seemed to be tooling around sans passengers, the idea has promise. The bicycle valet parking lots, in contrast, were an instant success, allowing a couple of thousand riders to scoot in and out of the city's core with the greatest of ease.

And Metro, the system that has allowed paralyzed escalators to become its symbol, performed near-miracles, moving an unprecedented million-plus riders along its rails with greater efficiency than almost anyone had predicted.

Eateries and drinking holes, hotels and cabbies were all grateful for the timely injection of cash. But we remain a city that famously embraces its inner wonkdom, so the sudden influx of Hollywood types left us jittery. Sure, it's cool to see Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé playing at our humdrum convention center, but we're still a town that prefers a more obscure brand of celeb-watching. If the Hollywood swells had hung around too long, we'd get all nervous about prices soaring at downtown restaurants or, worse, falling victim to the further spread of that dread California disease, valet parking.

Obamamania led some planners to forget that we're deep into a recession; all weekend, e-mails announced cancellations of balls and parties. In the end, this was a day to celebrate by standing together in a very cold place, not by spending big bucks on bad hors d'oeuvres and rented duds.

Some problems were both foreseeable and unavoidable: It took about eight hours to fill the Mall with a million people; it's only logical that clearing the same crowd would take at least a few hours. Using the Third Street tunnel as a pedestrian pathway under the Pennsylvania Avenue parade security zone was ingenious, but more routes off the Mall were needed. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini's comment that authorities had expected "a more staggered exit" is no excuse; why would anyone have lingered on the Mall after the ceremonies ended?

Even a happy crowd can harbor a maniac, so a good security plan was necessary, but a change of administration is the perfect time to realign the balance between presenting a public show of force and sending the message of unbridled fear that has unfortunately dominated for the past seven years.

Having the National Guard poised to help is a long-standing part of big events; putting guardsmen and Hummers on every corner is post-9/11 hysteria that describes a state of siege rather than a state of readiness.

Was it really necessary to close the bridges from Virginia into the District? No. Aerial photos show that the area from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial was only sparsely populated. Streets were as empty as on a Christmas morn. We can't know for certain how many Metro riders would have driven in had the bridges been open. But the traffic coming in from Maryland was so remarkably light that it's fair to conclude that even if some bridges had stayed open, the small number who would have come by car would hardly have created the gridlock Gov. Tim Kaine feared.

Finally, the prize for inaugural gall goes to the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel's parking lot, where a sign went up just in time to greet the crush of partygoers: Event Parking, $50. (Breathe easy, Post bean-counters, I talked the attendant down to $17. The winning argument: This isn't Hollywood. Result: A $33 savings and a laugh from a beleaguered parking guy.)

By Marc Fisher |  January 22, 2009; 8:40 AM ET
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Comments

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OK, it may be fine for somebody from La-La Land to wait or miss the event but here We're The Most Important People In The World! Haven't you learned that by now?

Posted by: ronjaboy | January 22, 2009 9:03 AM

"Ask the poor folks who thought they had it made with purple or silver tickets to the Forbidden City, only to find that the federal security apparatus is balky without regard to one's station in life."

I don't think possessing those tickets is an indicator of "station in life." That's a bit of a stretch.

Posted by: kahuna613 | January 22, 2009 9:18 AM

It's also worth considering that closing the bridges was a step towards ensuring a clear, traffic free escape route in case of emergency. If a million+ people needed to get off the Mall quickly those bridges would have been crucial.

Posted by: iceicebaby | January 22, 2009 10:16 AM

Don't belive that satellite photo. It was taken at 11:19 a.m., soon after I arrived at the Washington Monument. By the time of the oath, nearly all of that area was filled. The photo should have been taken at the time of swearing in, not while thousands were still trudging toward the Mall.

Posted by: Weed1 | January 22, 2009 4:33 PM

Did the bridges need to be closed? How about, Did I-66 need to be closed from just inside the Beltway?

Posted by: cmckeonjr | January 25, 2009 6:55 PM

The Nation's Capital will celebrate the effective, efficient security measures of the recent Inauguration festivities at the National Bollard Festival.

See http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/celebrate-inaugural-security/

Posted by: MikeLicht | January 26, 2009 1:41 AM

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