The Long Struggle to Get Cheap Transit on the National Mall

Dear Coalition Friends:

For the latest in the long struggle to get low-cost circulation services on the National Mall, read this article on the Greater Greater Washington blog.  Visit the blog itself to see the maps and illustrations, and add your comments.

Greater Greater Washington Park Service might allow real transit on the Mall

by David Alpert
March 17, 2010 2:43 pm

The National Park Service has opened the door to allowing real transit in addition to, or instead of, the guided “interpretive visitor transportation” currently operated by the Tourmobile, but it’s not yet clear whether they will walk through that door.

The Park Service has had an exclusive contract with the Tourmobile for decades to provide services on the Mall. While the Tourmobile is great for those visitors who want guided “hop-on, hop-off” tours, many people simply want a bus or other public conveyance to transport them the fairly long distances from one end of the Mall to the other, or from the Mall to nearby restaurants and hotels.

The Tourmobile costs $27 per adult, while the Circulator costs $1. However, the National Park Service says their contract prohibits them from allowing Circulator buses on internal Mall roads that the Tourmobile uses, and also from even making mention of the Circulator on their signs. In the past, DC tried to implement a comprehensive Circulator on the Mall, but hostile members of Congress pushed NPS to just retain the Tourmobile exclusivity. DC even offered to buy the Tourmobile to end the impasse.

In its 2006 Visitor Transportation Study, NPS considered six options for transportation on the Mall:

  1. Keep the current tour routes, which extend from Union Station to Arlington Cemetery and around the Tidal Basin.
  2. Keep the current routes, extend the Arlington Cemetery service to the Marine Corps Memorial, and add a route going to the museums and memorials on Pennsylvania Avenue and around Gallery Place and Judiciary Square. The service could feature spoken tours or could serve both interpretive and transportation needs by providing interpretation through brochures, individual seat plug-in audio, MP3 players, or the like.
  3. Expand the current spoken tour service with new routes around the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Gallery Place/Judiciary Square.
  4. Provide a more extensive service similar to that in Alternative 2, but also serving the White House, Farragut and McPherson Squares, and Washington Circle with possible extensions to the Kennedy Center and Georgetown/the C&O Canal.
  5. Replace the tour service entirely with Circulator routes on the Mall and Tidal Basin but not to Arlington, and providing no interpretation.

According to a recently-released Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI), NPS has chosen Option 2 as its “preferred alternative.” While at first it seems frustrating that they didn’t choose the Circulators, Option 2 seems to allow for real transit as long as the buses have brochures and signs with phone numbers to call for recorded audio, or something like that.

At the NCPC meeting recently to discuss the National Mall Plan, NPS announced that they’ve been talking with DC about Circulator service. According to sources familiar with the meeting, they’ve made a lot of progress and NPS may finally be ready to end its contract with Tourmobile.

Tom Mack, the original owner of the Tourmobile has died, and therefore won’t keep going to Congress to lobby against any non-interpretive transit, as he did in the past. His family doesn’t want to stay in the Mall tour business. But the badly-written original contract requires NPS to buy out the Tourmobile’s vehicles, which means it’ll cost NPS to stop continuing the contract.

According to Mall advocate Judy Scott Feldman of Save Our Mall, the Downtown BID (which helped pioneer the Circulator) proposed a Circulator service that could also double as an interpretive service, but NPS rejected the idea at the time. Perhaps the time has now come.

Ending the bizarre Tourmobile monopoly would be a huge step forward, but NPS does still seem to be thinking of the Mall as requiring one single concessionaire. That could be the Circulator, or it could be a different private company. But having an exclusive with one company makes little sense.

Really, the Mall needs two kinds of transportation: tour services and regular buses. They aren’t mutually exclusive since they serve different populations. NPS should simply allow local transit buses on the Mall. In addition, they could solicit proposals for interpretive transit.

Maybe the Circulator can propose it with brochures or even in-seat audio on new buses. Or maybe a private company could do it in parallel with the Circulator. They could go together, but don’t need to. Feldman also criticized the closed-door nature of this decision. Why should providing transit be a secret negotiation and decision?

Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, told me that in addition to working out bus transportation around the Mall, DC would like to work with NPS on bike sharing and management of tourbuses. DC and Arlington plan a large, joint bike sharing system, and the Mall would be a perfect place for many bike stations. These would both facilitate moving around the Mall and also traveling between the Mall and surrounding neighborhoods, restaurants, and Metro stations in DC and Arlington.

The Mall plan also gives little attention to the many tour buses that drive to the Mall. Many of them idle for long periods of time, emitting substantial pollution. They also form a virtual wall 20 feet high, Tregoning pointed out, and while NPS and NCPC would never consider building a 20-foot wall between the Washington Monument and a nearby road, the buses in effect create just such a wall.

According to Tregoning, one TIGER grant proposal DC submitted which didn’t get funding involved letting buses park at 5th and I, where a failed project will instead be a temporary parking lot, in exchange for putting transponders on the buses so DC can collect data on their movements and design a better system for managing and parking the buses long-term.

The FONSI also has two additional nuggets. NPS may start allowing Segways on certain designated routes, the sidewalks on roadways crossing the Mall, and on part of Ohio Drive and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Finally, NPS may add meters to some of its parking, “to support transit operations, encourage greater use of transit services and be consistent with regional transportation practices.” As Michael Perkins noted in testimony before the DC Council, that might also make it easier to park on the Mall.


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