WASHINGTON — Police are blocking off all bridges crossing the Potomac River into Washington and a huge chunk of downtown when Barack Obama takes the oath of office Jan. 20, securing the largest area of the nation's capital for any inauguration.
Some 3.5 square miles of downtown, including the business district and government buildings surrounding the National Mall, will be closed to traffic starting the afternoon of Jan. 19, the day before the inauguration, and remain closed until the morning rush hour on Jan. 21, Barack Obama's first full day as president. The Secret Service announced the closures Wednesday.
U.S. intelligence officials say they know of no specific, credible terror threat, but the celebration surrounding inauguration of the nation's first black president remains an attractive target for international and domestic terrorists.
The agency plans to set up 13 security stations to screen anyone arriving for the inauguration parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. Additional screening facilities will be near the Capitol and the White House. The screening stations open at 7 a.m. on Inauguration Day.
Officials estimate between 2 million and 3 million people will travel to Washington for the event.
The Secret Service also warned that only two screening stations will be set up for people moving from the National Mall to the parade route after Obama takes his oath. The National Mall stretches from the Capitol to the Potomac.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, security has grown with each inauguration. "I think it will be the most security, as far as I'm aware, that any inauguration has had," Chertoff said.
With Potomac River bridges into Washington closed, Virginia transportation officials decided that all but official and authorized vehicles will be barred from inbound Interstate 66 and Interstate 395 inside the Interstate 495 Beltway that circles the capital.
Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty said security played a role in the decision to close the highways and bridges, but the primary motivation was traffic management _ motorists would have nowhere to go as they draw near the capital.
Except for one major bridge connecting the city with southern Maryland, traffic will not be disrupted on other highways entering the city. Still, Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari was skeptical about driving in Washington on Inauguration Day.
"Everyone needs to understand there will be severe congestion," Porcari said. "Taking transit is the only way to get to D.C. Finding a parking spot will be like winning the lottery _ it won't happen."
Even using mass transit will be dicey. Officials with Metro, the Washington area's transit system, said subway trains will be packed for the inauguration and that passengers should expect long lines.
"We've been planning all along to be prepared to carry a tremendous amount of people," spokesman Steve Taubenkibel said.
An unresolved question for Metro officials is how train operators, bus drivers and technicians will get to work with all the street and bridge closings.
Joe Cardone, resident manager of Washington's historic Mayflower Hotel, faces a similar problem for hotel staff members needed to provide services to the guests who have fully booked the facility.
If workers live in the city, Cardone said they will likely walk, ride bicycles or take Metro rail or buses to work. Some may end up bunking at the hotel, possibly in unused meeting rooms.
"We have seasoned staff that's been through inaugurations before, so they know how to prepare themselves for traffic jams and difficulties getting in," he said. "They just add an hour or so for travel."
On the Web:
Secret Service: http://www.secretservice.gov/presidential_inaugural.shtml