More Than 930,000 use public transit on Inauguration Day

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By Uriah A. Kiser
Published: January 21, 2009

The crowd on the National Mall stretched for nearly two miles Tuesday - from the Capitol to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Associated Press, through photographs and past crowd estimates, guessed that a million people descended on Washington for the inauguration of Barack Obama.

More than 930,000 of them got there using public transportation.

In Virginia, local transit officials were out in force early Tuesday, helping a range of riders both amateur and experienced.

People from places like St. Louis, North Carolina and Detroit, purchased one of the 18,000 tickets to ride the Virginia Railway Express into Washington on Tuesday.

At the VRE station in Fredericksburg, chants of “Obama! Obama!” rang out when the line started moving at 5 a.m. for the first train into Washington. Some had been there before 4 a.m.

And though the number of riders on OmniRide commuter buses was lighter than expected, they too began taking riders free of charge from park and ride lots in Lake Ridge, Manassas and Woodbridge—to Metro stations—starting at 4 a.m.

There were no significant delays reported on any public transportation system in carrying passengers back to Virginia either in the morning or after the inauguration, said Jennifer Pickett, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation spokeswoman.

The dire predictions that Interstate 95 would resemble a parking lot from the Capital Beltway to Richmond, Va., never came true.

Traffic on the roads remained lighter than normal throughout the day, unless you were near an exit for a Metro station.

“It’s hard to say why traffic was so light. Maybe some people stayed home to watch it on TV, maybe some decided to carpool, some could have opted to take mass transit over driving,” said Deborah Cox, Virginia State Police spokeswoman.

Metro parking lots filled up fast Tuesday morning, with some drivers waiting more than three hours to get into the Springfield-Franconia Metro station parking lot.

It seems more chose to drive directly to Metro stations than take commuter buses from the farther suburbs, Cox said.

In addition to the massive number of people on public transit, the area saw unprecedented road closures Tuesday.

At 3 a.m. the northbound lanes of Interstate 395 and the eastbound lanes of I-66 were closed at the Beltway.

Only authorized vehicles, such as buses and cabs, could use 395 and 66. All other cars were diverted onto the Beltway to continue their trip to Maryland.

While the inbound lanes of both roadways were closed, the plan was to have the outbound lanes open for drivers wanting to leave Washington.

But even that plan seemed to crumble by 3 p.m.

Since all road bridges in and out of the city had already been closed to cars, the mass exodus of people walking across the 14th Street and Theodore Roosevelt bridges crossing back into Virginia subsequently forced the closure of the highways, in both directions.

Cox called the closures a temporary safety precaution only, and I-395 south reopened just after 4 p.m.

All of the road restrictions were scheduled to be lifted by 7 p.m.

Joan Morris, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman, maintained that planning was key to the day’s success, but added it is too early to start sending out congratulations for a job well done.

“It’s still early ... you can bet over the next few days we will be grading ourselves on how we did here,” Morris said.

Staff writer Uriah A. Kiser can be reached at 703-878-8065. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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