Pope Francis is coming, and D.C. is prepping for him as it would for a presidential inauguration.
District and federal officials today discussed some of the measures they’re undertaking to gear up for the papal visit in two weeks, from Sept. 22 through Sept. 24. The pope’s three-day sojourn will be his first official visit to the United States, during which he will conduct his first mass on American soil at North America’s largest Catholic church—the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—located in Brookland. He’ll also meet with President Obama, participate in a parade directly next to the White House, and address a joint session of Congress.
The downside? Francis’ visit will force the District to close several major streets and put huge stresses on the area’s transit systems as well as security and emergency response infrastructure.
“I am focused on making sure the community is prepared for the hundreds of thousands of people who will come to our city looking for a chance to see the pope,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference held at the St. Regis hotel. “We are ready. We have safety measures in place. And we are prepared to manage through any impacts on local transportation and services.”
D.C. Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo announced a series of roads that will shut down during the pope’s visit, either temporarily or during the entire duration of the trip (see more road closures below):
- Massachusetts Avenue NW between Observatory Circle South and 34th Place NW will be closed to all northbound traffic*
- the intersection of 14th Street and Independence Avenue NW
- Michigan Avenue from Irving to 10th Street NE
- Parts of Lincoln Memorial Circle
- Independence Avenue from 3rd Street SE to 2rd Street SE
- Constitution Avenue from 3rd Street NW to 2nd Street NW
Dormsjo said DDOT will publish maps on the closures early next week. He added that employers should encourage staff to telecommute if possible (as the federal government has already done) and that public transit remains “the best mode to get downtown.” (D.C. public schools and the D.C. government will remain open.)
Notably, other high-volume events are scheduled during the papal visit, including a home game at Nationals Park, a few concerts at Verizon Center, and a climate change rally on the National Mall. Circulator buses will divert from the mall to the basilica during the pope’s mass.
“We are going to be manning 70 intersections around the city that will have significant impacts due to closures and the requisite detours,” Dormsjo explained. The intersections will be manned by traffic control officers, crossing guards, and twice as many National Guard staff as on July 4.
James Murray, a Secret Service agent responsible for the District, said he couldn’t disclose any of the specific security measures various agencies will take, but did point out that the pope’s visit was classified as a National Special Security Event on May 22 of this year. It’s the 50th such event declared since the 1990s, Murray explained, half of which have taken place in D.C.; senior leaders from 15 different federal, local, and military agencies collaborated on this NSSE.
“Experience has taught us that managing the expertise of public and private partners is vital to [success],” Murray said. “So while it’s fully understood that an event of this size and nature brings inconveniences in and around the District, the Secret Service and our many partners are drawing from those past experiences in an effort to anticipate and minimize [any] disruptions.”
In case of emergency responses, D.C. will have the “same level of planning as for other NSSEs,” Bowser said. The director of the District Department of Health, LaQuandra Nesbitt, added that her agency has worked collaboratively with other jurisdictions, including Maryland and Virginia, to make sure rescue services are ready. (Some of those responses have failed in recent months.)
Asked whether the District had performed a cost-benefit analysis of Pope Francis’ stay in terms of expected revenues and expenses for the city, Bowser said: “As the nation’s capital, we host a lot of dignitaries, and having probably the most popular person in the world visit your city is a good thing… Where we are able to seek reimbursement for security matters [from the federal government, we will]… We expect that people will come from out of town to see the pope.”
On Sept. 23, the pope’s canonization mass for Junipero Serra—who will become the first American saint—will occur outside the basilica. “The mass will be in Spanish,” Jane Belford, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington explained. “The Holy Father will address Congress in English.”
You can view Pope Francis’ schedule here and plan accordingly. (May the Force be with you.)
Photo by Andrew Giambrone
*This line has been corrected.