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The Pope’s Visit Will Be Comparable to a Presidential Inauguration

And it will probably wreck your commute.
Blessings to you, but not your commute! Photograph by Giulio Napolitano via Shutterstock.

Federal and local leaders are preparing giddily for Pope Francis‘s upcoming visit to Washington. But at a press conference Thursday, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and other officials warned that the pontiff’s schedule will cause severe disruptions to the way people move around town.

Residents and visitors alike should expect extensive road closures around the Naval Observatory, where Francis will stay during his visit from September 22 to 24, including a chunk of Massachusetts Ave., Northwest, that will greatly impact people traveling between downtown DC and upper Northwest and Maryland, said Leif Djormso, the director of the District Department of Transportation. Additionally, there will be closures, detours, and other delays near the White House when the pope meets with President Obama, on Capitol Hill when he addresses Congress, and in Brookland when he celebrates Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

In other words, if people are praying, don’t go driving there.

Coordinating the urban logistics for a papal visit is a many-tiered undertaking. With Francis’s first US visit classified as a National Security Special Event, the US Secret Service is the lead agency overseeing the public-safety and security components. James Murray, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s papal-visit operation, said there will be a “seamless security environment” to welcome the pope, but that it will be very noticeable. Murray said the closest comparison is a presidential inauguration, and the description of the parade route Francis’s popemobile will travel on September 23 as he shuttles from the White House to the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle for a mid-morning Mass does not seem far off. Multiple layers of security will block off several blocks of 15th and 17th streets and Constitution Avenue, and spectators who want to watch from the National Mall will have to pass through metal detectors and bag checks.

Transit officals said people should try to use public transit if possible, but the pope’s schedule will result in delays for Metro commuters, especially during the afternoon Mass on September 23, during which Francis will perform the first canonization of a saint on US soil. While the Brookland station is closest to the basilica, Metro’s interim general manager, Jack Requa, reminded reporters the Red Line stop is “not the biggest,” and may have one of its entrances shuttered to accommodate security requirements. While the transit agency says it will operate additional trains and cancel track work during Francis’s visit, the expected crush of worshippers attending the outdoor service will slow the Red Line and ripple through Metro during afternoon rush hour. Additionally, road closures over the three-day visit will disrupt as many as 70 bus lines, Requa said.

Despite the expected traffic effects, the officials at Thursday’s briefing were thrilled for the impact the pope’s upcoming stay might have on the region, especially for its hospitality and tourism sectors. “Having probably the most popular person in the world visit your city is a good thing,” Bowser said.

Still, officials were loath to give an estimate of just how many people will descend on Washington to get a whiff of Francis. The Secret Service does not give out crowd projections, but Murray said it analyzes previous papal visits and national security events. When Francis’s much-less-popular predecessor, Benedict XVI, visited Washington in 2008, an estimated 41,000 people celebrated Mass at Nationals Park while 4,000 lined the streets outside the White House when he visited with President George W. Bush.

But officials seem to be bracing for much larger crowds for this pope, who drew an estimated 3.5 million people to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach on his first foreign trip since his ascension in 2013. On Thursday, September 24, the Mall will be outfitted with large video screens showing Francis’s address to Congress, which a representative from the Archdiocese of Washington said will be delivered in English.

Despite the inevitable disruptions to people’s commutes, Washington is likely the best-equipped of the three US cities Francis is visiting to handle a papal appearance. While smaller than New York or Philadelphia (which is oddly chippy about its own papal preparation), Washington has hosted half the 50 National Security Special Events the Secret Service has overseen since the classification was developed in 1998, Murray said.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.