28 February 2008

Please fix your gaze on our nation's capital

Apologies in advance to those outside the United States.

Something's stirring in DC. I'm not referring to the continuing Clemens-Waxman staredown, or the purported stonewalling of Arlen Specter by the NFL. There's a new ballpark in the District, and it's causing more than a little upheaval.

The still-unnamed, $611 million, publicly-funded stadium is getting its finishing touches prior to its opening, which is only one month away. There's a good deal of apprehension about what will happen when the Nats start playing ball in their new digs, and for good reason. It appears that the Nats will be getting by with the bare minimum of parking at the site while leveraging the excellent but potentially overtaxed Metrorail system to get up to 50% of all stadiumgoers to and from the ballpark.

For those not familiar with Metro, it's a third-rail based system that's about the same length (trackwise) as BART, but with more standardized equipment (standard gauge tracks) and cool modern station design (platforms actually light up as trains approach). It also has three times the riders of BART, many of whom come from the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs to work in the District daily.

The Navy Yard station is only one block from the northern edge of the ballpark, though it's serviced by only one Metro route, the Green line. The west entrance to the station is being expanded and new escalators have been added to accommodate up to 15,000 people per hour. Previously, the entrance could handle only 5,000. Getting everyone in and out on trains shouldn't be too difficult as WMATA has plenty of experience with crush crowds from their previous work with RFK Stadium and Verizon Center. It promises to be somewhat time-consuming as each trainset is only a pair of cars holding up to 350 total including standees (DC riders please correct me on this if I am mistaken - I'm recalling from memory).

Metro promises to be full of fans who park at or near a station further away and take the subway in. That's a pretty good plan since parking is going to be scarce around the ballpark. Two garages, holding a total of 1,200 spaces, have had their spaces signed away to the team and its highest of high-roller customers. The Nats are working on an additional 4,000 spaces in the vicinity. The catch? Those spaces are only being promised to season ticket holders. Area residents have their own on-street parking restrictions (PDF map). Casual fans will either have to endure a frustrating hunt for expensive parking, or park and take a shuttle from RFK, which is over 2 miles away through what will probably be gnarly traffic. At least parking and the shuttle are supposed to be free.

Speaking of shuttles, the RFK shuttle won't be alone. WMATA is beefing up buses to handle fans who want to use a non-subway alternative to Union Station and other more central locales. Still others who are looking to avoid the crush at Navy Yard may take a different line to another station about a mile away from the ballpark, then hoof it in.

As the area around the ballpark gets more developed parking options should increase. For the time being managing this situation on a daily basis should be at the very least quite challenging. There's one interesting indicator of how difficult it could be: the Nats don't have a single midweek day game at home on this season's schedule.