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Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2001 / 14 Kislev 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Preventing a terrorist bombing of the White House


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- WASHINGTON audiences groaned watching "The American President" in 1995, when Annette Bening, playing an environmental lobbyist, apologized for being late getting from Capitol Hill to the White House because traffic was bad at Dupont Circle.

The writer of the movie, Aaron Sorkin, who later created the TV hit "The West Wing," undoubtedly knows by now that you don't go from Capitol Hill to the White House by way of Dupont Circle.

But as groaning Washington drivers know, the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing makes the journey downtown almost as torturous as Bening described.

Pennsylvania Avenue used to carry 2,000 cars per hour across town. Now, the roads drivers have to negotiate instead -- I or K streets -- are invariably clogged.

Intermittently, there has been an inadequate alternative route when the Secret Service allowed -- E Street on the other side of the White House -- but that route has been closed since Sept. 11, with no reopening in sight.

Meantime, for the last six years, what used to be Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th Street to 17th Street has become an ugly testament to the power of terrorism: a macadam wasteland surrounded by Jersey barriers and used only for roller-hockey games.

Local politicians and some members of Congress appealed for the reopening of Pennsylvania Avenue prior to Sept. 11, but they've been largely silent on the point since then.

But the National Capital Planning Commission has come up with a number of recommendations that could restore traffic flow and make the grounds in front of the White House more than an eyesore.

As NCPC Chairman John Cogbill testified to the Government Reform subcommittee on the District of Columbia on Nov. 2, "Closed streets, hastily erected Jersey barriers, concrete planters and guard huts on Washington's monumental core ... are unsightly and do not reflect the landscape of a free and open democratic society."

The NCPC recognized that Pennsylvania may have to be kept closed for the foreseeable future, but it recommended the possibility of building a reinforced traffic t

unnel under the avenue in front of the White House. Tunnels channel traffic under major traffic circles elsewhere -- including Dupont Circle -- so, theoretically, a tunnel that could contain a truck bomb blast to avoid damage to the White House could be constructed under Pennsylvania Avenue.

An NCPC task force also suggested building a tunnel under E Street either as a supplement to or as a substitute for the Pennsylvania Avenue tunnel.

It's not clear to me -- or to city officials -- why the Secret Service has closed off E Street to begin with. Trucks can effectively be barred from the street, which is so far from the White House that no car bomb could threaten it.

While the future of Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street is being sorted out, the NCPC recommended efforts to at least make traveling across D.C. less of a nightmare -- such as synchronizing traffic lights, erecting signs, improving intersections and restricting parking on some streets.

And, as Cogbill testified, "Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th Street and 17th Street has been unsightly for too long." He recommended that it be "redesigned as a beautiful, landscaped civic space that welcomes pedestrians and that respects the historic setting of the White House.

"We believe it is possible to create a distinguished public space and promenade that maintains the historic integrity of the street and permits the inaugural parade to follow its traditional route."

A new transit service is being planned for downtown D.C., which would permit limited bus travel along Pennsylvania Avenue, but this would only partially solve the traffic nightmare.

The planning commission is also recommending that a study be conducted to protect the monuments in the middle of Washington more beautifully than with concrete Jersey walls.

The Senate is well along its way to making its perimeter security look attractive. The House has only begun thinking about the matter.

It's long past time for Congress to help improve the situation downtown. Members may be able to drive up to the White House and park conveniently on the grounds. But for the public, it's a pain.



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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