Washington state officials respond to questions about road closures and gridlock caused by the Chinese president’s motorcade.
Epic road closures. Social-media traffic rants. Commuter frustrations boiling over.
Brutal gridlock, clogged freeways and throttled arterials during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Seattle area this week sparked contempt among a bevy of commuters and provoked a glut of second-guessing about transportation preparations.
Why were freeway lanes shut down, in some cases up to an hour or more before Xi’s motorcade was even on the move?
Why didn’t the Chinese president travel around the region by helicopter?
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Who came up with his travel plans?
We separately asked Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, the Washington Department of Transportation and the Secret Service about the decision-making that went into Xi’s travel itinerary and its ramifications for area transportation. Their answers are side by side, below.
Q: What was the state’s role in planning Xi’s itinerary?
David Postman, spokesman for Inslee: “There was a first meeting between Washington (state) people and China people probably over a month ago … So we had some talks, and then they sketched out for us in detail, ‘Here’s what we want to do.’ And from that, we could make suggestions of course, and we did. But most of those suggestions in terms of logistics were not taken.
“And then when they said, ‘Here’s where we want to go,’ that’s when the Secret Service stepped in and we have no say in that, you know, as to what the route is, what the schedule of the events are or anything like that.”
Lars Erickson, spokesman for WashDOT:“Overall, in this type of situation when a dignitary visits — whether it’s a foreign dignitary, president or the vice president — we play a support role in these functions. As to why the Secret Service decides to close a specific road or use a specific airport, they’re calling the shots on those types of decisions.
“We do give them recommendations. In the case of the planning for this trip, we gave them very candid feedback. It’s pretty obvious that any impact to our system can be significant. But they’re the ones that make the decisions.”
Robert Kierstead, special agent in charge, Seattle field office, Secret Service:
“What we can say is that there is a tremendous amount of advance planning and coordination in the areas of venue security, communications and motorcade planning. Our goal is to develop and implement with numerous agencies, state and local, a seamless security plan that will create a safe and secure environment for all our protectees, as well as the general public.”
Q: What specific suggestions did you make to mitigate impacts to traffic?
Postman: “We talked to them about where they would fly in and out of, what it was like to move during rush hour and what it would do to traffic. We brought up (using) helicopters, all those kinds of things. They did not choose to do those things.
“The first thing that came up was the airport. The suggestion (to the Chinese) was, ‘If you landed at Boeing Field instead of Paine Field, you’d be in downtown much quicker and there’s much easier access; that’s where our presidents fly in.’ That did not change. We don’t know if that was a Chinese decision or a Secret Service decision. So then when they decided still to land there (Paine Field), we suggested that would be a good time to visit Boeing. Obviously (that suggestion) was not (taken).
“A big part of it was you were trying to be a help in saying, ‘Let us explain to you how far apart these things are from each other.’ But it was just not taken up. And we’re not offering these as criticisms, but just trying to help them make the most efficient itinerary possible.”
Erickson: “In the case of planning for this trip, we gave them very candid feedback on the implications to traffic.
“It’s pretty obvious that during high traffic windows of time — or let me step back, at any time when there’s a (road) closure due to an accident or event — there tends to be a ripple effect on traffic. So we gave very candid feedback. Any impact to our system can be significant.”
Kierstead: “For this visit we had quite a bit of area to cover. What we did was create a security plan to get our protectees from various sites as safely as possible … Nothing out of the ordinary occurred during this visit.”
Q: What are some of the other recommendations made to the Chinese advance team that weren’t taken?
Postman: “There were a lot of things. It’s been reported a lot there was a scheduled dinner at Bill Gates’ house. There never was. There was an invitation made, but it was never accepted. So there were some surprising things, from our standpoint, and I think that was one of them. Gary Locke presented the invitation on behalf of the Gates family, but it was never accepted or responded to.
“They had very distinct views of what they wanted to accomplish here, and we had limited ability to shape them.”
Q: Overall, how do you feel that this trip came off in terms of impact on the region’s traffic?
Postman: “I haven’t gotten a chance to get a detailed report from WashDOT yet, but all indications are it was pretty bad. And I think anybody who was stuck in it is frustrated and ticked off about it, and I know I would be too if I was stuck in it. There’s no prettying that up. When you’re going to close a freeway, people are going to get stuck. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often.
“But I think there’s a lot more to the visit than just the traffic. There’s another reason why we choose to do this. Seattle, Everett and Tacoma showed the world they can host a person like this in a way that is safe and still have protests and give people a voice. There is good that comes with this — I know that that doesn’t help when you’re stuck in traffic. When we look at this trip from the bigger picture … businesses big and small had a chance to press their case to the Chinese. So there’s an opportunity there.”
Erickson: “This was a three-day impact for us, so (the impact) varied somewhat. In some cases, it went better than expected and in other cases there were more challenges for drivers than we expected. Anecdotally, I’ve seen on social media both extremes. Some people were caught in a closure for a significant amount of time, and I’ve seen some social media where people were saying, ‘Wow, this was wide open.’ I think a lot of it depended on timing.”
Kierstead: “While many protectees to the city have the potential to cause inconvenience to the city, working with our partner agencies we make every effort to anticipate and minimize disruptions.”
Q: With President Obama expected to visit next month, will the state have any more say on mitigating traffic impacts during his trip?
Postman: “WashDOT can offer guidance to the advance team. But we can’t dictate that for our own president either.”