The Folly of Inauguration Island
Inauguration madness has hit a new and disturbing peak with the Secret Service's effort to turn Washington into Inauguration Island, cutting the District off from as much of the outside world as possible on Jan. 20.
Virginians will bear the brunt of the over-the-top restrictions, as every single Potomac River crossing inside the Beltway is shut down to vehicular traffic for the entire day. Originally, the feds wanted to restrict even pedestrians to the Memorial Bridge, but under pressure from outraged Virginia residents and Reps. Jim Moran and Gerry Connolly, the authorities backed off on that part of the blockade. Still, they're not just closing the bridges to cars, they're even blockading the highways--vast stretches of the GW Parkway and I-395 will be closed, along with a preposterously long list of other closings.
If Inauguration Day were some kind of holiday, the road closings would be awful enough--another sign of a reckless security apparatus extending its elbows simply because it can. But in fact, that day is one on which many thousands of commuters must go to work, in addition to the hundreds of thousands and perhaps more who will be coming into the city to attend the inaugural festivities and ceremonies. And the only message from the authorities is, hey, take Metro, even as the very same officials warn that the transit system is almost certain to be wildly overrun.
Why cut off Virginians' access to Washington, but not Maryland's? What is so frightening about the bridges over the Potomac that is not true of the major bridges, avenues and highways that bring Maryland drivers in over the Anacostia River and along land routes from Montgomery and Prince George's counties? The issue cannot be proximity to the Mall and the federal enclave, because they're not just shutting down the Memorial, 14th Street and Teddy Roosevelt bridges, but also the Key and Chain bridges, which are farther from the District's core than are some of the bridges from Maryland.
Moran and Connolly, in their letter of protest to the Secret Service, called the closings "a needless restriction." And the AAA's local chief, Lon Anderson, put it this way: "I think the last time the bridges were closed like this, Lincoln was president and was worried about an invasion by General Lee."
The other day, I asked Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine whether the closings were a result of security or congestion concerns, and he immediately said the issue was traffic and the utter gridlock that would result if, for example, people got terribly backed up and frustrated and even abandoned their vehicles on or near the bridges.
Later that day, the governor called back to clarify that security is indeed a piece of the rationale: "We're not closing them because of a worry about a bomb coming in or something like that so much. But there is a public safety component. We predicted that if we did not close the bridges, there would just be an immediate lockdown because of the congestion; it would just gridlock up. And then we would not be able to move emergency vehicles if there was some public safety emergency. So there was a public safety component in that regard."
That of course is a legitimate concern, but couldn't the objective of keeping a path clear for emergency vehicles be met by reserving a lane entirely for official vehicles, or even closing just one bridge?
Virginians may be excused for wondering just what it is they did to deserve this. After all, they just voted for a Democrat for president for the first time in 44 years, and what do they get for it--a virtual blockade against northern Virginians who might want to celebrate Barack Obama's election, or, heaven forbid, get to work that day.
And, another special gift, the removal of their governor as a full-time leader. Just as Virginia's legislature comes into session to try to cope with the worst financial crisis the state has had in decades, Gov. Kaine gets appointed to head the Democratic National Committee, a job he claims he can handle out of his back pocket for his last year in office in Richmond. Whatever your partisan leanings, surely nobody buys that one.
Kaine is a talented and conscientious guy, and I have no doubt he will put his Virginia duties first, but is this the right signal to send to a state whose citizens are struggling and worried? And while his appointment may be good for Democrats nationally, doesn't it threaten to hurt them in Virginia, where the opposition will happily use Kaine's DNC role as a way to bash the Democrat who is chosen to run for governor this year?
These are obviously not intentional slights of Virginia, but they sure add up to extra headaches for a state that pivoted rather sharply on behalf of the incoming administration.
(The Virginian Pilot in Hampton Roads at least had the good humor to assure its readers that plucky Virginians will prevail in this match against the security-obsessive authorities: "If George Washington could cross the icy Delaware River, his fellow Virginians surely won't flinch at the thought of a brisk trip through Maryland or across the Potomac. Bring your oars, your tricorn hats and your coolers, citizens. We're going in.")
But wait--it's just possible that northern Virginians won't win the prize for most disrupted populace on Inauguration Day. Vast stretches of the District, including many residential neighborhoods outside of the federal core, have been declared bus-only zones on Inauguration Day. In huge swaths of the city, in places such as Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Capitol Hill, and virtually all of Southwest Washington, residents will be banned from parking their cars on the streets where they live. What exactly those residents are supposed to do with their cars is unknown. The city government and the Secret Service apparently live under the delusion that the entire population of Washington is rich enough to afford off-street parking and just happen to use curbside parking because they enjoy getting the occasional ticket from the District. The government has announced no plan of any kind for D.C. residents to put their cars somewhere to make way for buses.
The keyword in all this is arrogance--only a government obsessed with security and blind to the realities of city life could issue a plan like this, one that requires workers to perform miracles to get to offices and shops that will be open for business as usual, and for especially long hours, to serve huge crowds of people who will need food, shelter and whatnot that day. In a real city, one that is permitted to govern itself, the government would feel the pressure from the people who need to be able to use their city, and this level of arrogance from a federal bureaucracy that considers Washington to be its plaything, rather than a place where people work and live, would be impossible.
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