D.C. officials, residents exasperated by stepped-up security

Sunday, August 15, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Near the White House, stores now rely on handcarts -- not trucks -- to get their deliveries. Ambulances face delays. And officials worry about what will happen when summer ends and commuters once again push full-scale into the city's center every day.

The recent round of terror-related security alerts has caused broad new restrictions in the nation's capital, inconveniencing people who live and work here and leading to increasingly bitter words between federal and city officials.

City officials have complained for a decade about "security creep" restricting access -- and especially since Sept. 11, 2001, when the terror attacks prompted agencies' security directors to put up more concrete barriers around federal buildings.

But when the Homeland Security Department raised the terror alert warning level for high-profile financial targets on Aug. 1, and new roadblocks and checkpoints were put up near the Capitol shortly afterward, D.C. officials reacted with an unprecedented level of outrage.

Trucks are now subject to cargo searches at random checkpoints around the city, and there are 14 permanent checkpoints near Capitol Hill.

While previous closures have prompted loose commitments to consult with the city beforehand, federal officials concede that has rarely occurred. The dispute over the new Capitol roadblocks prompted an Aug. 9 meeting that produced an agreement for monthly meetings to discuss street-level security concerns -- and Capitol police agreed to allow city emergency vehicles through their checkpoints.

"This is a living city, and it simply cannot move if we have as many checkpoints and street closings as they have foisted on us," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's nonvoting representative to Congress.

Norton and others worry that when congressional staffers and large numbers of federal employees return to regular commuting in September, after the traditional August vacation, the city will face traffic gridlock.

For Sang Mon Yant, manager of a liquor store not far from the White House, the new restrictions already have created a monumental headache: Large deliveries to his store now must be prearranged with law enforcement authorities. "If they come in late, they have to reschedule," he said.

On streets immediately adjacent to the White House, the situation is even more restrictive. Shipments of food, office supplies and other goods now must be loaded onto handcarts and hauled into areas where trucks and panel vans are no longer allowed.

Fire officials are concerned the security restrictions could delay ambulance calls.

"When traffic is tied up for one reason or another, traffic is often squeezed to another road," said Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Driss Benjelloun, a Moroccan-born street vendor who sells jewelry two blocks from the White House, says tourists and commuters who used to walk by his table now avoid the area, reducing his sales by half. "Sometimes the streets are closed and you have to go around many blocks just to get over here," he said.

A task force formed by the National Capital Planning Commission is trying to ensure that the city is secure without creating unnecessary hardship for its residents or harming the city's aesthetics.

But Richard L. Friedman, the task force chairman, said the chain link fencing, concrete walls and other makeshift barriers around some of the city's monuments and notable buildings are not the answer.

The commission instead has recommended the use of trees, light poles, newspaper stands and heavy planter boxes.

"We can't let the terrorists win by making Washington look like Beirut," Friedman said.

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