One Crowded Capital

Nobody knows for sure how many people will descend on Washington, D.C., this month to witness Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Mayor Adrian Fenty has...
by | January 1, 2009 AT 2:00 AM

Nobody knows for sure how many people will descend on Washington, D.C., this month to witness Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Mayor Adrian Fenty has put the number between 3 and 5 million. Others say it will be closer to the 1.2 million who came for Lyndon B. Johnson's inaugural in 1964. What is clear is that January 20, and perhaps the three-day weekend preceding it, will bring a crush of humanity into the capital city. If the numbers turn out on the high end of the range, it may represent the largest single gathering of people in American history.

Even for a city that is accustomed to handling big marches and events, this is a bit much. The local infrastructure and services are likely to be stretched past their limits. For example, Metro, the local subway system, has never carried more than 855,000 passengers in a single day. That record is certain to be shattered. Metro plans to put every functioning rail car into service, and to run trains at rush-hour frequencies all day long. Still, officials are imploring anyone coming to the festivities from within a two-mile radius to plan on getting there by foot. As Cathy Asato, a spokesperson for the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority, puts it, "Only so many people can sit on a train, and there's only so many trains we can run in a defined time period."

Local officials also are bracing for the arrival of 10,000 charter buses, carrying as many as 500,000 people. They're arranging to use parking facilities at various stadiums, shopping malls and college campuses in the region. But they're still sorting out how to get those passengers downtown without further overburdening the subway system. "Finding a big piece of tarmac to park buses isn't the main issue," D.C. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini told the Washington Post. "Getting people from that chunk of pavement to where they want to be -- that's where the big issue is going to be."

Part of the logistical problem is the tight security that will be in place. Streets will be closed to traffic surrounding the U.S. Capitol, where Obama's swearing-in will occur, and around the parade route to the White House. Although the U.S. Secret Service is the lead agency coordinating security for the event, nearly every one of D.C.'s 4,100 cops will be on duty. They will be joined on the streets and in the crowds by another 4,000 officers borrowed from neighboring jurisdictions.

One of the biggest questions preceding the inaugural is where all the out-of-towners will stay. There are only 29,000 hotel rooms in D.C., and lodgings are booked solid for hundreds of miles around. Seeing dollar signs, locals have taken to renting out their homes, apartments and condos -- an underground housing market that is getting an official wink and nod from local officials. Fenty signed an executive order temporarily suspending the requirement that residents acquire a business license and certificate of occupancy in order to rent out their residences. The city's Office of Tax and Revenue is setting aside its usual 14.5 percent sales tax on short-term rentals. And the Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs released a model lease agreement to help minimize disputes between would-be landlords and their subletters.

The city also is temporarily relaxing laws related to bars and restaurants. At the request of the local association of restaurants, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation allowing bars, nightclubs and restaurants to serve alcohol until 5 a.m. -- three hours later than usual -- from January 17 to 21. The same establishments will be allowed to stay open 24 hours to serve food. Supporters say the measure will be good for business. Others, including the head of the local police union, worry that keeping the party going so late into the night will only strain law enforcement resources at a time when they already will be consumed with policing official events. If Police Chief Cathy Lanier is concerned about it, she isn't letting on. "We will do what we need to do," she said in December, "and we will make sure that the city is safe."