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Inauguration: The Million Things We Don't Know March

Ten thousand buses. Or maybe 3,000.

Four million people. Or maybe 1 million.

Closed bridges. But maybe we'll reopen a couple of them if the traffic backup's not too bad.

Check our web sites. But be careful: Our maps are wrong.

Watch the street signs. But wait: We put up signs in the wrong places and our people are out there now checking.

I love the ritual of the big political news conference. This morning's session with Mayor Adrian Fenty, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and the head of the U.S. Secret Service included the classic bunch of guys in suits and uniforms (plus D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier) crowded behind the elected officials in a show of authority and confidence. 'We've got this inauguration thing under control,' was the message.

But the actual content of the conference sent a rather different, and refreshingly honest, message: We have no idea what's going to happen, and we just want to be as ready as we can be.

The D.C. government is tracking the registration of buses for the big day. There's a cool daily graph showing how the number of buses signing up for reserved parking spikes with each passing 24 hours. Fenty even provided a breaking news, mid-presser update, pushing the number of buses from 2,280 to more than 3,000. (Sadly, nobody rushes out mid-news conference to flash the latest info bits to the world anymore; just more tap-tap on the Blackberrys.) (Now you too can say nyah-nyah to the leader of the free world -- we still have our Blackberrys, but you can't have yours anymore, nyah-nyah.)

But let's be real: Nobody knows how many buses are coming. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini told me after the news conference that although 3,000 buses have registered parking spots, the District's survey of leading bus companies indicates that the actual number of buses that may be arriving over the weekend may be more like 6,000 to 7,000.

You could read something about the personalities of the politicians in the way they tried to balance warnings about the impending mess with encouragement about the Inauguration being a momentous, safe and perhaps even fun event.

"This is going to be something special," Fenty said, beaming as he talked about "pinching ourselves at this enormous, exciting event." Then he got serious: The crowds are expected to be so big that even the Sunday afternoon concert at the Lincoln Memorial will likely draw an audience similar in size to Washington's July 4th fireworks crowd--about 500,000 visitors.

If Fenty seemed genuinely thrilled to be part of this and, as is his wont, almost casually confident that things would work out just fine, O'Malley played the role of the stern parent. "We are confident that we are going to have a safe, secure and orderly celebration," the governor said. But...

"This is not like throwing the family in a van and heading down to the Air and Space Museum," he warned. "You really do have to have a plan." O'Malley stood at the lectern with his fingers crossed.

Kaine played the part of genial but wise uncle. He shared the others' enthusiasm for the event ("There are not a lot of days in your life when you wake up and you know you'll remember it for the rest of your life. This is one of those days"), but the governor went much farther than the others to spell out the rationale behind the unpopular road and bridge closings that are making many Virginians feel singled out for exclusion from the big day.

"If Virginia were to allow unimpeded access" on the Potomac River crossings, "we would in all likelihood experience massive gridlock," Kaine said. "We wrestled with that."

And, perhaps feeling the pain of a citizenry upset about the virtual blockade of Washington, Kaine listed every possible means of getting to the District from Virginia, up to and including the dreaded drive up around the Beltway to Maryland to join O'Malley's constituents on their trek downtown. That, Kaine said, is "the last resort."

O'Malley couldn't contain himself -- he leaned into the picture and reiterated: "The last option."

And then Kaine came up with another alternative: "Come in the day before." He said he's already heard from lots of folks who plan to camp out in their offices or with friends in Washington.

Which leads me back to something we started talking about here last week: If even a tenth of the folks who say they plan to stay overnight at their offices or businesses actually do so come Monday night, there should be quite a midnight party in the making on Inauguration Eve.

Sounds like folks ought to gather somewhere. Chief Lanier even suggested that people will want to wander by and watch the security forces clearing the avenue and completing their setup. "They're welcome to watch," she said.

Other news tidbits of note from the presser:

-- Tangherlini said he will try to reopen the Chain and Key bridges even in the middle of Inauguration day if the backup into Arlington is not causing major traffic headaches there.

-- The previous high for buses coming into the District is about 1,200 to 1,500, set during the World War II Memorial opening, the Million Man March, and the Women's Rights March.

-- There's no guarantee that Pennsylvania Avenue will be reopened in time for rush hour on Wednesday morning the 21st. The street lights have to be put back up and the avenue cleaned up, and Tangherlini said the goal is to be open and ready for the morning rush, but that may not be possible.

-- The Secret Service put 2.5 million people through metal detectors at campaign events in 2004. In the 2008 campaign, that figure jumped to 4.5 million. Popular guy, this Obama fellow.

By Marc Fisher |  January 13, 2009; 2:25 PM ET
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"City Administrator Dan Tangherlini told me after the news conference that although 3,000 buses have registered parking spots, the District's survey of leading bus companies indicates that the actual number of buses that may be arriving over the weekend may be more like 6,000 to 7,000."

And that's what I'm worried about. Buses just comign willy-nilly into the city, parking wherever they want, however they want, "oh, I was supposed to register?!" the people on the bus rioting when police try to turn them around, so the police give in and let the bus just park whereever and people to just stream in, consequence free.

I'm terrified to think of the disaster of epic proportions that will be tuesday late afternoon/evening. Hordes of people who have no familiarity with the city, wandering about, looking for their bus....and then all those buses trying to leave. And evacuation nightmare!

Posted by: RedBirdie | January 13, 2009 2:45 PM

One question for which I can't seem to get an answer: will it be possible to use Chain Bridge OUTBOUND on January 20th? I work at Fairfax Hospital, live in NW DC, and need to get to work that morning. I keep hearing the bridges are closed to inbound traffic, but nothing about getting out? If the bridges are all completely closed, how do you recommend I get to work?

Posted by: BRANTONPA | January 13, 2009 3:07 PM

And we don't know how many peesicles we'll find once the event is over.

Posted by: justhere | January 13, 2009 4:12 PM

I fail to understand the ridiculous comparisons of Obama to Lincoln who A. was a Republican and B. wanted to send all the freed slaves back to Africa. La Raza and the Southern Poverty Law Center would probably label Lincoln a dangerous racist if he were alive today.

It seems somehow fitting that Obama's inauguration will be a reenactment of Hurricane Katrina with white people.

Posted by: greg3 | January 13, 2009 4:24 PM

And all those people with no backpacks for hours in sub freezing temperatures? Let them have their thermoses, backpacks, blankets, chairs and whatever else they need to survive.

Posted by: GregHerrick | January 13, 2009 4:24 PM

Oh, but with all the incredible hype and closures, the weather chat and complete lack of anything to see if you don't have tickets or plan to arrive seven hours before the parade, the crowd might be smaller than Bush's second.

The security over-reaction really is too bad. I hope the turn-out ressembles the support he's earned and needs.

Posted by: GregHerrick | January 13, 2009 4:27 PM

Backpacks are fine on the Mall.

Posted by: wp11234 | January 13, 2009 4:39 PM

Brantonpa -- Ever heard of "The Beltway"? It goes to Virginia, too!

Posted by: gettingdizzy1 | January 13, 2009 4:46 PM

This is going to be worse than when the NBA All Star weekend comes to town. One toilet per 8,900 people in DC. Head for the hills folks.

Posted by: DaMan2 | January 13, 2009 4:50 PM

The obsessive/compulsive security focus makes it even more fitting that the new DHS headquarters will be on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital.

Posted by: bethesdaeconomist | January 13, 2009 5:15 PM

Gettyingdizzy1 (I like your handle: I'm not getting dizzy I already am

It is my understanding that ALL bridges to Virginia are closed on Jan 20 (or so the media keep reporting) which to my thinking would include the Am Legion Bridge. If it's open, I could use it, but it would add significantly to my commute. If that's the only way, I will take it but if outbound traffic from DC over Chain Bridge is allowed I would prefer that route. So far no one has answered my question.

Posted by: BRANTONPA | January 13, 2009 5:43 PM

This is insane. I thought Obama would lessen security that was increased by Bush. If this is going to be so bad, have it privately and televise it. This situation is going to be a fantastic enviornment for thugs, which in this case will be mostly black attacking mostly black victims. Thanks Obama.

Posted by: mikewadestr | January 13, 2009 6:13 PM

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