When the pope’s in town, work from home!
So advised District transportation officials today at a press briefing on Pope Francis’s visit next week from Sept. 22 through Sept. 24, which will cause major delays for both public and private transit. The panel—led by District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo, Metro Interim General Manger and CEO Jack Requa, and Transit Police Chief Ronald Pavlik—said area commuters should telework if possible, and prepare themselves for hours-long travel times. A series of road-closures around D.C. will force drivers to take alternative routes during morning and evening commutes, while Metro trains will provide “near rush-hour service” all Wednesday, through the Pope’s departure Thursday. (Officials did not give an estimate of expected visitors.)
“This is a major event for D.C., but we’ve managed these types of projects in the past,” Dormsjo said. “So we want residents and business owners to know that DDOT and [Metro] are doing everything we can to keep the city moving both efficiently and safely.” He later said the visit is “really not akin to one specific major event we have in the District,” such as marathons, July 4, and presidential inaugurations. “We’re using a lot of the planning principles and techniques that have worked effectively in each of those settings and we’re just bringing them together in a consecutive way, so it’s all happening back-to-back-to-back,” Dormsjo explained during Q&A.
Wasim Raja, DDOT’s signals/ITS manager, showed maps and simulations depicting anticipated traffic impacts during the Pope’s visit (a full schedule of which is available here). Rush hour on Wednesday morning (when Francis will visit President Obama at the White House) will see the largest disruption, Raja said. Commuters can expect delays of an hour to an hour-and-forty-five minutes along the George Washington Parkway, I-66, and I-395. Notably, DDOT’s simulations depicted “the worst-case scenario,” assuming drivers would not change their transit behavior for the three-days of the papal visit. The models did not consider traffic from additional visitors to D.C., Dormsjo explained: “We’re looking at the management of the conventional commute day.”
DDOT will also impose “closures and work modifications” on construction projects within a two-block radius of the Pope’s major events: a popemobile parade near the White House, mass at the Basilica in Brookland, and a speech to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, among a few others. (Pavlik would not comment on any threats to public security that the District has so far received.)
As for Metro service, Requa said riders should buy SmarTrip fares in advance, offering a free commemorative protector for SmarTrip cards if purchased next Monday at Metro sales offices. Trains will operate during regular hours—5 a.m. to midnight—with normal weekday fares and parking rates in effect; additionally, no track work is scheduled “anywhere in the system” during the Pope’s stay. “I advise riders to avoid transfers if at all possible,” Requa explained. “That means arriving and departing at the station on the same line as your destination,” especially in light of security check points. “Consider connecting bus services, walking, and biking,” he said. Street closures will affect 70 Metro bus routes (you can access a complete list of detours here).
Complicating the transit system’s capacity is a Nationals home game next Wednesday night, a climate-change rally on the National Mall, and the modest size of certain Metro stations. Likely to be most problematic? Brookland station along the Red Line, which can accommodate 4,000 to 5,000 people an hour, said Metro’s deputy general manager Rob Troup. Twenty-five thousand worshippers are expected at the Pope’s basilica mass at 4 p.m. on Sept. 23. (The mass will be in Spanish and is a ticketed event.) The station will be exit-only before the mass and entrance-only after, according to a “fluid” schedule. Given the “hours” riders may end up waiting to get on at Brookland, Metro recommends they get off at adjacent stations and take bus shuttles to the mass.
Asked whether Metro will institute overtime or other special preparations for its staff, Requa said “some overtime” will be built into the Pope’s stay and that bus drivers will be notified of service changes due to anticipated road closures. Still, some closures may not be expected: If Francis has to move across town, Metro will tell operators about “rolling closures” through its radio-system.
“We’re fairly well-staffed for a normal weekday,” Requa said. “We can’t provide much more service than we do on a normal weekday. I think our efforts are trying to make the service run as well as it can with support staff.” Troup added that 978 railcars would operate during peak times; 954 are usually required for rush hour (that’s an increase of roughly 2.5 percent, in other words.)
Bottom line: If you absolutely must commute to work during the Pope’s stay, or want to see him, use public transit—but be prepared to wait for hours, possibly in crowds of hundreds of people.
Photo by Andrew Giambrone via WMATA, maps via DDOT