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Secret Service, City Talking in Wake of Motorcade Traffic Fiasco

This week’s dignitary-motorcade-caused traffic conflagration in Washington continues to reverberate, with the Secret Service responding quickly to complaints from District Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., affirming that “D.C. is not a fiefdom.”

Drivers in the nation’s capital have learned to expect traffic detours and street closures when the president, vice president, Cabinet members and other prominent figures travel through the city.

But Tuesday’s gridlock, caused by street closures related to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prompted Gray to express his “outrage” to Secret Service Director Julia A. Pierson, specifically over the agency’s closure of southbound lanes on the lower end of 14th Street Northwest. The Secret Service gave the District only four or five days’ notice that it would be closing several blocks near the Willard hotel for three days this week to accommodate Netanyahu, according to the mayor’s office.

“I appreciate that important dignitaries visiting the nation’s capital and the White House must be afforded every courtesy and protection available by the United States government and local jurisdictions,” Gray wrote in a letter to Pierson, adding that he understood the White House’s guest house is currently closed for renovation. “However, I do not understand why the Secret Service insists on dignitaries staying in a hotel that results in significant portions of downtown Washington being paralyzed by traffic.”

The Tuesday morning closure severely inconvenienced District drivers, and many of them dialed the D.C. government to complain.

“We got calls from people complaining about traffic and, the fact of the matter is, it had nothing to do with the snow,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the mayor. “It had everything to do with the fact that 14th Street was closed.”

Pierson responded promptly to Gray’s letter on Tuesday evening. The Secret Service and the mayor’s office are currently working to meet to review planning protocol for state visits and other necessary safety operations, according to Ribeiro.

Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary declined to share the contents of Pierson’s letter, in accordance with agency protocol.

Gray hopes that going forward, D.C. can work with the Secret Service to ensure security arrangements are more sensitive to the “significant adverse impact” certain measures have on District residents and visitors.

Still, “D.C. is not a fiefdom to be subjected to the dictatorship of the Secret Service or any other federal agency,” Norton said in a statement on the street closures.

Norton said she was “astonished and distressed” to learn of the closures and believes that if the Secret Service had consulted with city officials, a plan could have been developed that would not have “paralyzed” the city and region.

“We will never be able to calculate the losses in time and money due to these closures,” she continued. “However, we must use this experience to develop a plan for detailed consultation for all street closures except routine motorcades. My staff will meet with the city and Secret Service to ensure a satisfactory plan is developed.”

Norton used the traffic fiasco to push for a bill she is sponsoring to establish a “United States Commission on an Open Society with Security,” which could investigate best practices to achieve the necessary balance between openness and security.

She has also called on the National Park Service and the Secret Service to develop a traffic control plan with the pending permanent shutdown of E Street behind the White House.

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