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For more than a year, District officials planned for a disaster everyone was sure would happen: the transformation of Capitol Hill into a home-game traffic jam once Nationals Stadium finally opened.
Emeka Moneme, director of the District Department of Transportation, says he started work on the problem as soon as he got the job in January ’07. He held meetings once a week. Various maps detailing traffic flow were handed out in the run-up to Opening Day, including one that went out last week labeling a wide circle “Baseball Impact.”
The zone covers a huge swath, reaching the edge of the old Waterside Mall to the west, the Anacostia River to the south, the edge of Barracks Row to the east, and ending just shy of the Capitol to the north. It resembles what the city might come up with to track the blast from a dirty bomb.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells got in on the prep work also. He held 15 community meetings and introduced emergency legislation that lays out broad new parking rules. After the bill passed unanimously on March 4, Wells said in a statement that the new regulations would buffer “the crush of ballpark visitors we’re about to experience.”
The plan included drastically increasing the number of hours parking rules were in effect. In some areas, parking enforcement continued until midnight. Dozens of blocks were given new rules, restricting areas of Capitol Hill to cars with Ward 6 stickers only.
For their part, the Nationals whipped up a huge media campaign to encourage fans to take Metro. For those who wouldn’t or couldn’t get on board, free parking is offered at RFK Stadium, along with a free -shuttle that drops fans off within a few blocks of the new park.
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Opening Day was a sellout, of course, but by the very next game, attendance dropped by 50 percent. The 3,000-plus drivers who took advantage of the free parking at RFK dwindled to an average of 1,000 to 600 cars, according to Nationals Vice President Gregory McCarthy.
As the team struggles—at press time, the Nats’ record was 16-23—the “crush” has not been forthcoming.
Wells admitted the Nationals may have overdone it. “They actually built more parking than they needed,” he told a standing-room-only crowd at a recent community meeting.
The evidence on game days backs him up.
Lot HH, located underneath the I-395 overpass off South Capitol Street, can fit 1,000 cars. It hasn’t come close to reaching full capacity.
According to the parking attendants’ logbooks, the lot’s stats mirror the team’s struggle on the field. For the April 7 game against the Florida Marlins (in which the Nats lost 10-7), 18 cars were parked there. At $15 a car, the lot made a whopping $270 that night.
Two days later, the lot netted just 20 cars. The numbers have increased since then, but HH has yet to reach triple digits. And this is the cheapest among all the Nationals-related paid lots.
“I think we are the best in town,” asserts Barry Leathers Sr., the lot’s manager. “We have a police officer for security. This is the best lot there can be.”
On Friday, May 2, with the Nats in the middle of a four-game homestand against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the HH lot has 48 cars. After four small rows of compacts and SUVs, it becomes a vast empty zone nearly the length of a football field.
A few feet from the entrance, Leathers and his two parking attendants hang out in chairs around a small wooden table.
Leathers says learning about Ethiopia from his co-workers helps pass the time. They’re teaching him some basic Amharic, important phrases like “What is your name?”
The D.C. Police officer parked just outside HH’s gates insists he’s not doing security for the lot before quickly rolling up his window. A thick Robert Ludlum tome takes up the passenger seat.
On the same night in Lot T, at 3rd and K Streets SE, there are 32 cars among roughly 120 spaces, all for $20 a pop.
“The game’s just started,” insists parking attendant Vernon Tinch. The game has been going for more than a half-hour. “A lot of people don’t know the way to the lot. Some of them come in, and they can’t find it.”
Tonight, Tinch has a small radio propped against a concrete stump set to Majic 102.3-FM, not the game. It’s a slow night all around. At Lot U, located across from T with 108 spaces—a little more than a third are filled.
Throughout the homestand, the lot scene plays out very much the same: beautiful weather, competitive games inside the brand-new ballpark, and a lot of bored parking attendants outside and ready to take your money.
Jay Sumner, 37, paid his money, plus a little extra. Fearing full lots, he got online at the Nats’ Web site and reserved a $20 parking space at Lot T, a five-minute walk to the stadium. For the privilege of reserving early, he was charged a $7.50 “processing fee.”
“I could have just [driven] up here,” he says. Now that he knows the parking is easy, he’s all for the hype: “More parking for us.”
And while Tommy Wells publicly admits the traffic nightmare “has not materialized,” the city is still cashing in to some degree. The Nationals agreed to shell out $550,000 per year for three years to rent three lots from the D.C. Housing Authority, according to the authority’s spokesperson Dena Michaelson.
“There’s no way we’ll lose money on this,” Michaelson says. The Nationals are locked into the deal no matter how many cars show up.
McCarthy, the Nats’ VP, refuses to say whether the lots are making money. “It’s still early in the season,” he says. “Summer is not here. The inventory of lots was based on the experience we think will unfold. The parking situation is still evolving. We are delighted to say that there are more opportunities available.”
Some drivers in Ward 6 get how things are evolving. At the community meeting last week, neighbors of the ballpark complained, as expected, about a lack of spaces for their dinner guests; nonprofit employees complained about getting ticketed while at work. But it’s not necessarily the onslaught of Virginia and Maryland tags in their ’hoods causing them grief.
The real problem may be Ward 6’ers themselves: People with valid parking stickers are driving to the games and parking on closer-in streets. Other than that irritation, the residents who walk to the games or who reside in the impact area say they’ve seen no increase in congestion.
“I think they went overboard,” says resident Ellen Opper-Weiner. “I’m not so sure that baseball should be such a priority.”