Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Tale of Two Phillies

Barack Obama’s decision to arrive at his inauguration on a train from Philadelphia offers more than a rhetorical nod to Abraham Lincoln, who traveled to his 1861 inauguration along the same route. The Amtrak line Obama will follow January 17 on a specially chartered train offers the President-elect an on-the-ground perspective of how badly America’s infrastructure and working class communities have corroded due to decades of decline and neglect. Official appearances are scheduled in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington – all once-prosperous cities suffering from a surfeit of institutional and social maladies. Symptoms as wide ranging as rusting bridges and rampant homicides speak to a civilizational malaise desperately in need of a corrective.

(Train yards west of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station)

For decades, while Wall Street and real estate portfolios ballooned with profits from nothing, working-class communities and the massive public works projects of the early 20th century have been systemically starved to the brink of collapse. DC saw its homicide rate climb 2.2% to 185 in 2008. Even though Baltimore and Philadelphia saw double-digit percentage drops in homicides this year, to over 200 and 300 respectively, murder rates in those cities remained several times higher than the national average. Wilmington set a city record of 24 homicides for 2008. Institutionalized poverty, failing public schools, a now decades-old drug epidemic, rampant divorce, AIDS, failing or non-existent community organizations, unemployment, underemployment, government corruption, and societal and governmental neglect all contribute to these appalling statistics.

(Philadelphia's 30th Street Station)

Perhaps nothing could be a better symbol for the decline of these four American cities than Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Built in 1933, Philadelphia’s rail hub is a wonder of public infrastructure resembling an Egyptian temple. Then state-of-the-art steel beams enabled the building’s architects to fill the exterior walls of the post and lintel structure with windows, flooding the enormous central hall of the station with natural light. The arched roofs of the station’s trolley platforms are made of an interlaced webbing of steel girders. It is precisely the kind of building one would never expect government contractors to be able or willing to build, yet it was built four years into the Great Depression.

(The "Drexel Shaft" on the west side of the 30th Street Station)

Straddling the west bank of the Schuylkill River, the 30th Street Station sits in the heart of a sprawling industrial complex that at its heyday was a feat of American engineering. Now blighted with rust, its web of rusting tracks and bridges encircle the defunct “Drexel Shaft” – an enormous smokestack looming over the University City neighborhood – which once provided power and heating to the 30th Street Station and its outbuildings. The massive quantity of steel girders, rails and rivets, the esthetic care of the station’s architects, and the political will to push through the financing of such a costly public good during a time of economic ruin speak to the surplus of cultural wealth available in the midst of this country’s worst economic era. That that richness was left to spoil by an oligarchy of conmen and profiteers speaks to moral bankruptcy in desperate need of a bailout.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

JCCIC Asks Disabled to Think Twice About Inauguration; Ticket Holders to Arrive by 9

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies advised ticket holders to the January 20 inauguration to arrive no later than 9 a.m. The program starts at 11:30. 240,000 ticketed guests will occupy a secure zone on the western slope of Capitol Hill. Strollers, backpacks, thermoses and umbrellas are prohibited in the secure zone and all ticket holders will pass through a metal detector and receive a pat down.

1,000,000 or more people are expected on the National Mall, a grassy common that stretches from the base of Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial, some two miles distant. Those attendees will be able to watch the inaugural program via ten enormous Jumbotrons. While there are no restrictions on strollers or other items on the Mall, event organizers have asked parents to consider the wisdom of bringing young children given limited space, large crowds, hours-long waits and potentially cold weather.

Additionally, the JCCIC asked people with special needs to think twice about attending the inauguration. Traffic to and from Capitol Hill and the Mall will be severely curtailed, requiring millions to either walk several miles or suffer inordinately long lines and overcrowding in Metro stations. Given the importance of Metro to the overall movement of inauguration attendees, JCCIC’s decision seems a thinly veiled plea for the disabled to get out of the way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Balls and Mayhem

The Washington Post ran two inaugural updates this morning.

According to the Post, the Presidential Inaugural Committee has announced that it will hold ten official inaugural balls in five locations. These are the only balls where the first and second families are certain to make an appearance the night of January 20th. Six of the balls will be held at the Washington Convention Center, with the remaining four at the National Building Museum, Union Station, the Washington Hilton and the D.C Armory. Attendance at the balls is sorted geographically, with ticket holders from various parts of the country attending together. The five sites are guaranteed to be tightly guarded by Secret Service, with long lines expected and traffic severely curtailed in the surrounding streets. Ten balls is more than either of George W Bush’s inaugurations, while falling short of the record of fourteen, set by Bill Clinton in 1997.

Additionally, the Post reports that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff met with DC mayor Adrian Fenty and the governors of Maryland and Virginia to discuss the incipient road and rail fiasco as millions of people arriving for the inauguration test the limits of the Washington Metropolitan Area’s transportation infrastructure. It seems that the gravity of the situation may suddenly becoming real to elected officials and their representatives. Obamapalooza has reported extensively on the likelihood that tens of thousands of people trying to get into DC for inauguration festivities will be stranded on over-crowded train platforms and in gridlocked traffic backed up for miles. Robert Crouch, homeland security advisor to Virginia governor Tim Kaine told the Post, “[traffic] is part of where the major focus will turn, so that people don’t spend hours, if not days on the interstate.”

Days, people. Days.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Abrahamapalooza 2.0

First he settled on following the tail leg of Lincoln’s whistle stop tour to the 1861 inauguration, deciding to travel by train from Philadelphia to Washington January 17, 2009. Now Barack Obama will swear his allegiance to the Constitution on a bible once owned by the sixteenth president, the Presidential Inaugural Committee announced yesterday.

Owning to a combination of Obama’s personal admiration for his predecessor and a knack for political showmanship, the 2009 inauguration will be full of nods to Lincoln. True the men have something in common. Both were adopted sons of Illinois who began their careers in Illinois state politics. Both were long shot candidates, political outsiders often ridiculed for their backgrounds, appearances and lack of the traditional presidential trappings. But much of the Lincoln-Obama parallel results from circumstance and shrewd stagecraft.

Obama has chosen to arrive at his inauguration on a train from Philadelphia, after a stop in Baltimore, as Lincoln did in 1861. Obama will take the oath of office with his hand on Lincoln’s bible. During Obama’s swearing in on the west steps of the US Capitol he will look across the National Mall to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King gave the most important speech of the civil rights era forty-five years ago.

If any theme has predominance in Obama’s nascent presidency it is reconciliation. He has stocked his cabinet, as Lincoln did, with rivals. He has reached across party lines, inviting prominent Republicans to join his cohort. In the selection of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation, Obama showed that embracing the evangelical right at least symbolically was worth alienating an important and influential part of the left.

The inauguration is our first glimpse at what the Obama presidency will be like, apart from the bluster and promise of the primary and general elections. It is the first fruit of Obama policy. In the choice of Lincoln as a symbol and a role model, Obama promises to follow ideals rather than political expediencies. Hopefully he can live up to that promise.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Towards a Final Tally

Guessing how many people will attend Barack Obama’s inauguration in just under a month is quickly becoming the most popular parlor game in DC. Backing away from previous estimates that as many as 6 million people could flood the city for the January 20 festivities, city officials revised their projections downwards in an article appearing in today’s Washington Post. But new figures of 1.5 to 3 million are drawn from maximum capacities of DC’s metropolitan area transportation infrastructure, not demand. In other words, the new figures reflect how many people may actually make it into the city for the swearing-in and subsequent parade, but not how many people may try.

The Post article reveals that original estimates of 4 to 6 million came from projected demand and did not reflect infrastructural capabilities. Much like the German army’s Schlieffen Plan in World War One – which put more troops in motion than roads and trains could physically carry – these early projections appear to have originated with haphazard reasoning based on little more than holding a wet finger in the political winds. While officials are cutting those estimates by more than half, their new figures do not account for what will happen to any excess of people who come to the DC area during the inauguration weekend but are left stranded outside the city due to insufficient road and rail capacity.

In an augury of just how little officials know about inauguration turnout, the Post story repeats City Administrator Dan Tangherlini’s fallacious reasoning that the final number can be estimated by accounting for Metro’s 1.2 million person capacity. Metro is not an indicator of turnout as a Metro rider must already be in the DC area to use Metro in the first place. How many people can ride the subway doesn't reflect how many people will try to come to the city. Furthermore, while suburban residents from Maryland and Virginia may use Metro to reach the inaugural festivities, the 1.2 million figure also accounts for visitors who reached the Washington area by other means.

Calculating those numbers is easier.

500,000 people are expected to arrive on 10,000 chartered buses – half of the total number of charter buses east of the Mississippi. An additional 500,000 are due to arrive at National, Dulles and BWI airports. 75,000 are slated to arrive on Amtrak. 580,000 people live in the District. 5.3 million live in the Washington Metropolitan Area. While these projections, drawn from ticket sales and bus charters, appear relatively stable, several important variables remain unknown that could radically alter the final attendance numbers.

Perhaps the most important is car travel. AAA told the Post that three-quarters of tourists visiting DC arrive by car. But with bridges closed to private vehicles and large swaths of the city closed to traffic for security, it is anybody’s guess how many people will try to drive into the city or to outlying park and ride areas. If anywhere close to the three-quarters figure holds true in this case, upwards of 3 million people could be stalled in gridlock on the complex system of interstate surrounding the nation’s capital. How many would-be drivers actually make the inauguration is anyone’s guess.

The next most important factor is weather. If January 20 is a clear, relatively warm day, hundreds of thousands of residents living within a few miles of the National Mall may walk to the inauguration, swelling the total numbers substantially. DC is a Janus-faced city. On the one hand, it is Wonkdom – home of legions of federal bureaucrats who live and breathe politics. On the other, it is Chocolate City – historically and culturally one of the most important black cities in America. In a testament to his political charisma, Obama has sent a bolt of electricity through both enclaves. Decent weather could bring out Washington area residents in huge numbers.

Finally, one must account for interest. While people who already purchased tickets are unlikely to scrap their plans, visitors planning to drive from east coast cities and residents of surrounding suburbs and exurbs looking at a potential meltdown of mass transit services may opt to stay home and watch the inauguration on TV. That decision is affected by a complex and fluctuating political energy. Obama attracted record numbers during his close primary fight and election battle. Inauguration turnout may measure whether the Obameter is already starting to settle towards a new reality.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Looking Out For Number One (& For Number Two)

In what is either a serious downgrading of expected inauguration turnout or a bureaucratic snafu waiting in the wings, Presidental Inaugural Committee executive director Emmett Beliveau announced that 5,000 portable toilets will be made available for the inauguration.

While that may sound like a lot, 2,200 portable toilets were on hand for George W Bush’s 2005 inauguration, which 300,000 people attended. That’s one porta-potty for every 136 people. If two million people attend the noon swearing-in ceremony and the 2:30 inaugural parade, 5,000 toilets will provide one seven-foot plastic sanctuary for every 400 people, exceeding the National Park Service’s recommendation of one per 300.

Does this mean the Obama inaugural committee expects a lower than predicted turnout? Or has Mr Beliveau fudged his toilet algebra?

Obamapalooza thinks the latter.

Of those 5,000 toilets, only 1,000 will be arrayed along the Mall, with 3,500 dotting the parade route. Surely at least as many people will attend Obama’s inaugural ceremony as will attend the parade. Beliveau’s toilet algebra would have three times as many people attending the latter, which, if a smaller than expected crowd of 1.5 million comes for the inauguration, would mean the Obama team anticipates a crowd of about 350,000 to watch his swearing-in.

500,000 turned out to watch Obama’s victory speech in Chicago on Election Day. It is highly unlikely, given numerous estimates putting expected attendance somewhere between two and five million, that fewer people would turn out for Obama’s inaugural ceremony than did his Chicago victory speech, particularly as they are coming to Washington specifically for the inauguration.

Even a Mall crowd of 700,000 – twice the figure required to validate Beliveau’s equations – seems conservative. If a lowball estimate of 1.5 million people come to Washington on Inauguration Day, would more than half of them really opt to miss the swearing-in?

Obamapalooza predicts at least one million people fill the National Mall on Inauguration Day, at a bladder/toilet ratio of a 1,000:1.

Mr Beliveau, get your mop.

JCCIC Releases Inaugural Lineup

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has released the inaugural lineup.

After musical selections from the Marine Corps Band, the San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, California Senator Dianne Feinstein will call the inauguration to order and present welcoming remarks.

Controversial evangelical pastor Rick Warren will then give the invocation. Musical legend Aretha Franklin will perform after Warren.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens will then administer the oath of office to Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

Musical selections from Hollywood composer John Williams, performed by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill, follow Biden’s swearing in.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will then administer the oath of office to President-elect Barack Obama. Following his swearing in, Obama will give his inaugural address.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander will read a poem after the newly minted President concludes his remarks. Following her Reverend Joseph Lowery, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will offer the benediction.

Finally, the US Navy Band “Sea Chanters” will perform the National Anthem with the accompaniment of a record shattering crowd assembled at the foot of the US Capitol.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Inauguration Updates

Controversial evangelical pastor Rick Warren will perform the invocation at Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Warren is founder of the Saddleback Church, a sprawling California megachurch that draws 20,000 people to its Sunday services, making it the fourth largest church in the United States. While Warren and Obama agree politically on AIDS and poverty relief, the choice of a figure with conservative views on gay marriage, stem cell research and women’s rights has mystified and angered many of Obama’s liberal supporters.

Roll Call reported yesterday that 10,000 active-duty US military personnel will be on hand in Washington during the January 20 inauguration. That figure is double the previously mentioned figure of 5,000 soldiers slated to aid in security and crowd control. It remains unclear how many of the additional personnel will perform ceremonial functions. While the Secret Service controls overall security during the inauguration, the US military coordinates the inaugural parade of the newly sworn-in President. Traditionally, soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines march in the procession.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies announced that poet Elizabeth Alexander will read at the inauguration. Alexander, 46, a professor of African American studies at Yale will be the fourth poet to read at a US Presidential Inauguration, and the first since Miller Williams read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997. Previously, Maya Angelou read in 1993 at Clinton’s first inauguration and Robert Frost read at John Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Alexander, the author of four books of poetry, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995.

The Washington Post reported today that more than 700 of nearly 1,700 locations slated for inauguration vendors will be given to Washington locals. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs revised the original number of vendor locations up from 500 to address the massive turnout expected for the inauguration. Only 100 vendors were on hand during George W Bush’s second inauguration in 2005. 716 D.C. street vendors will be given first preference for locations near the National Mall and at parking lots where thousands of buses are expected to unload visitors.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

“Last Call” Compromise

The DC Council succumbed to pressure from concerned US Senators and ecumenical and community groups last night and moved a special inauguration week “last call” in District bars to 4 a.m. from the 5 a.m. cutoff announced last week.

Under rules laid out in last night’s 9-4 vote, bars can remain open twenty-four hours from January 17-21, but may only serve alcohol until 4 a.m. Bars that wish to extend their hours past 2 a.m. weekdays and 3 a.m. weekends must pay a registration fee of $100 for bars and restaurants and $250 for nightclubs, the Washington Post reports.

The new 4 a.m. closing time is a compromise to vent off anger from various sources. Community groups said the DC Council rode roughshod over legally binding agreements between communities and bars about noise and operating hours when it announced last week without prior public notification that bars would have been able to serve alcohol until 5 a.m.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) protested drawing police away from inauguration security to contend with drunken crowds on the streets of places like Adams Morgan. The Downtown Cluster of Congregations sided with Sens. Feinstein and Bennett noting that the current level of police presence in Adams Morgan hasn’t been able to prevent a string of recent homicides in the popular nightlife neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the bureaucratic disconnect between the DC Council and DC Metro remains. With the dust settled, the 4 a.m. “last call” compromise appears likely to stand, but Metro has yet to amend its hours of operation past 3 a.m. January 17, midnight January 18 and 19 and 2 a.m. January 20.

After celebrating late into the night in District bars during inauguration week, throngs of revelers trapped in the city by insufficient transportation infrastructure will have to find their way back to their lodgings on foot, in the dark, in late January, or wait for Metro to begin operating.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Obama to Arrive in Washington by Train

Those looking for further evidence that Amtrak is the premier mode of travel to the 2009 Inauguration should note their fellow passengers: the Obamas and the Bidens. The Presidential Inaugural Committee released President-Elect Barack Obama’s inaugural travel plans yesterday.

Mimicking the last stage of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 railroad journey to Washington, Obama and his family will board a chartered Amtrak in Philadelphia January 17. Vice President-Elect Joe Biden will join the Obamas in Wilmington, Del., from which Biden made daily commutes on Amtrak during his long tenure as a US Senator. A final stop in Baltimore will provide residents of Charm City unable to attend the January 20 inauguration in neighboring Washington DC a chance to cheer on the hugely energizing Obama.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee suggested official inaugural events will begin after the Obamas’ and Bidens’ January 17 evening arrival. Without releasing specifics, they suggested there may be an official appearance by Barack Obama on the National Mall January 18.

No word yet on how Amtrak travel along the Philadelphia-Washington corridor will be affected by security.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Washington Metro’s Answer to Inauguration Crowds: The Schleppin Plan

Expected Inauguration Day turnout will vastly exceed Metro’s capabilities, forcing hundreds of thousands of visitors to walk to and from the noon swearing-in ceremony and the afternoon parade.

Area transportation experts told the Washington Post that even half the expected two to four million attendees will swamp a transit system designed to move 120,000 people per hour.

Coupled with massive street closures in the heart of the city and an estimated 10,000 charter buses expected Inauguration Day, the transportation infrastructure of the greater Washington area will be strained to the brink.

Southwest, United Airlines and US Airways have all added flights into the three airports serving DC, but in the case of National and Dulles airports, arriving passengers will be bottled-necked crossing the Potomac.

Passengers arriving at Dulles lack a rail link into the city and their schedules will be at the mercy of northbound traffic trying to navigate the five bridges connecting DC to Virginia.

National Airport is linked to the city by Metro and is much closer to Washington and the outlying cities of Arlington and Alexandria where tens of thousands of visitors are likely to stay. But with Metro ridership expected to exceed capacity, passengers should remember to pack their senses of humor.

Arriving into the city from Maryland’s BWI could prove easier. Maryland’s MARC commuter train, which serves BWI, will run on Inauguration Day, but southbound traffic on the I-95 corridor likely will be punishing. Amtrak, which also serves BWI, has added additional trains into Union Station.

East Coast visitors still looking for tickets to Washington might consider taking the train. With Metro and vehicle traffic likely to be paralyzed, Amtrak’s service to Union Station could be the most convenient way in and out of downtown Washington.

At the northern foot of Capitol Hill, Union Station is a short walk to the National Mall. On January 20, it looks like walking is going to be the transport of choice for visitors and residents alike.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Feds Scurry to Dampen Camping Fears

The Washington Post reported this morning that camping will not be permitted on the Mall for the presidential inauguration, assuaging nervous Washingtonians that the projected three to five million attendees of the 2009 Inauguration might transform the center of the District into a makeshift campground.

US Park Police Spokesman Sgt Robert LaChance told reporters that it is "not legal to camp on the Mall" and that though it is open twenty-four hours a day, the 500 acre common in the heart of the city might be swept to check for bombs during the night, the Post reported. Sgt LaChance did not specify what exactly constitutes camping versus all night loitering.

In contrast to DC Mayor Adrian Fenty's comments that he expects Obama supporters to camp overnight for inauguration parade seating, Secret Service spokesman Malcolm D Wiley said that 7 am would be "the absolute earliest you can get to a sidewalk" along the parade route, the Post also reported.

Wiley also struck a more conservative tone about expected turnout to the inauguration. According to the Post, Wiley said, "we have nothing to suggest there will be four million." Mayor Fenty has put the estimated number of inauguration attendees at three to five million.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What 800,000 Looks Like

A photo of 1995's Million Man March, which an estimated 800,000 people attended, taken from the steps of the US Capitol.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Forty days and forty nights remain in the Bush presidency and planning for Inauguration Day is in full swing, but with three to five million people estimated to attend Barack Obama's history-making inauguration, Washington DC is scrambling to accommodate the largest crowd ever to descend on the US Capital.

At the low end of the District's projections, three million attendees would more than double the previous record of 1.2 million who came for Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inauguration.

Few of Washington's 95,000 hotel rooms remain available and hotels are booking out as far away as West Virginia. Local residents are renting their homes for astronomical prices -- apartments listed on Craigslist go for as much as $3,000 a night -- while area luxury hotels are offering special inauguration package deals running into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Despite objections raised by California and Utah Senators Dianne Feinstein and Bob Bennett, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty announced today that he will back the DC Council's decision to let bars and nightclubs remain open until five am during the inauguration weekend. DC Metro plans on running extended rush-hour service to provide bus and Metro transportation to the millions expected to arrive, while DC's non-voting US Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton has discussed opening the District's sports stadiums as spill-over public space where the Inauguration may be viewed on television.

Plans are afoot to reinforce DC's 4,000 strong police force with a brigade of up to 5,000 US troops and as many as 2,500 police from jurisdictions outside the District. But if five million people do arrive to witness Barack Obama's and George W Bush's first and final days as President, DC could descend into chaos of Woodstockian proportions.

In the case that the District's upper estimates prove true, an 11,500 strong security force would provide one soldier or police officer for every 470 people. At that ratio, police would be able to perform little other than crowd control while parking enforcement and emergency services would be deeply strained.

The US Park Service, which administers the National Mall, is unsure whether three million people can physically fit on the 500 acres of open grass between the Lincoln Memorial and the western steps of the US Capitol, where the swearing in takes place January 20, 2009 at noon. 1995's Million Man March brought 800,000 people to the slopes of Capitol Hill and stretched the majority of the 1.1 miles westward to the Washington Monument.

If projections hold true, and four to six times that number arrive on Inauguration Day, crowds likely will occupy the entirety of the Mall, spilling across Independence and Constitution Avenues, and covering the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where forty years ago Martin Luther King challenged the American status quo with his "I have a dream" speech.

To give the District's estimated projections perspective, the resident population of Washington DC is 580,000 people. Five million people, the District's upper estimate of potential attendees, represents nine times the resident population. If that number do come to the District on Inauguration Day, it would equate to fourteen million people descending on Manhattan for New Year's Eve, or the entire population of Brazil traveling to Mexico City to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

It remains anyone's guess who is coming, where they will be staying, and what they will eat, drink or do while they are here. The fact is, Washington DC has never faced a logistical and infrastructural challenge as great as Inauguration 2009. Whatever happens, it is sure to make history.