Senator Jim Webb on National Mall Traffic and Tour Busses

Dear Coalition Friends:

The lack of affordable public transit, parking, and rational policy for dealing with the flood of tour buses on the Mall, is once again in the news, and now has garnered the interest of Virginia Senator Jim Webb.  See below, comments by bloggers Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post and David Alpert of GreaterGreater Washington.

We would make two clarifications to Mike DeBonis’s blog:  According to the National Park Service’s own records, Tourmobile’s contract is not “soon to expire” but expired in 2008, although we have heard that the contract has been “renewed” without a competitive and public solicitation process. In addition, the NPS does not hold an exclusive contract to run bus service on the Mall.  Rather, the Tourmobile’s contract with the NPS authorized it to “provide and operate a visitor interpretive shuttle service” (e.g., where someone provides audio tour information) within the National Mall and surrounding areas.

The big question is, why has there been no low-cost public bus service on the Mall — at the center of the District — for decades?  And even bigger, why is there no comprehensive plan — developed through an open and public process — to provide such a service going forward?

A well thought-out circulation plan for the entire Mall area, integrated with the city public transit system, is something the National Coalition to Save Our Mall has been calling for over several years, including parking for cars and tour buses to reduce traffic and pollution (see p. 6 of our Renewing American Democracy on the 3rd Century Mall, at http://www.savethemall.org).

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THE WASHINGTON POST
Mike DeBonis blog

Circulator changes might address Webb’s Mall traffic concerns

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) Wednesday wrote Mayor Adrian Fenty and the National Park Service, asking them to fix traffic problems on the National Mall.

“Particularly during the springtime, the increased presence of school and tour buses in the Mall area often brings traffic to a halt, reducing both the quality of life for area commuters and our visitors’ experience,” Webb writes. “It is not unusual for my constituents to spend more than one hour trying to pass through the Mall area on a spring afternoon.”

It, of course, rankles District residents (such as myself) when federal lawmakers suggest that the city can’t handle its own business. That said, Webb’s letter was very polite, addresses a real problem, and concerns an area of undeniable federal interest.

Still: The city government has done quite a bit under Fenty to improve the transportation options on the Mall — and it’s the federal government, NPS in particular, that might be the bigger obstruction to improvements.

Take the city’s $1 Circulator buses. They’ve been a great hit across the city, and they would go a long way to draw tourists and others out of their cars and motorcoaches, easing traffic. But Tourmobile, a private concern, holds an exclusive contract with NPS to run bus service on Mall thoroughfares — a service for which it charges as much as $27 a head. The Circulator service is left to operate on Constitution and Independence — still convenient to Mall tourists, but much less visible. (See this typically exhaustive Greater Greater Washington post for more details.)

So perhaps Sen. Webb could note to NPS that a lower-cost bus option might help matters?

There is hope: Tourmobile’s exclusive contract is soon to expire, and there is hope that whatever succeeds it would include a cheaper option. John Lisle, spokesman for the city transportation department, says his agency, which operates the Circulator, is “currently working with NPS to refine our service offerings on the Mall.”

The bulk of Webb’s letter, however, concerns the scores of tour buses that double-park and clog roads around the Mall. But the city hasn’t been standing still on those issues, either.

The GGW item quotes city planning director Harriet Tregoning saying that city hoped to establish satellite bus parking at 5th and I streets NW, where a stalled hotel project has left an empty lot that likely won’t be used for years. But a federal grant that the city applied for, Tregoning said, didn’t come through.

So again, here’s where Webb comes in: Earmark, perhaps?

UPDATE, 8:15 P.M.: DDOT Director Gabe Klein issued the following statement in response to Webb’s letter: “”We concur with Senator Webb that this issue should be addressed. DDOT provides policy and parking information to tour bus companies via our motor carrier master plan, as well as tour bus and trucking associations. We continue to partner with other District agencies, the private sector, as well as National Park Service (which has jurisdiction over this area on the National Mall) regarding ways to locate additional parking for the influx of tour buses that come to the city, and this continually updated information is available on our website. The issue is with compliance from the tour bus companies, and enforcement from the jurisdiction responsible when rules are not followed. It’s a careful balance to encourage tourism and the use of buses vs. automobiles, while enforcing bus idling and illegal parking laws.”

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GREATERGREATER WASHINGTON

Webb frustrated by congestion, tour buses on the Mall

by David Alpert
June 17, 2010 10:53 am

For a letter that at first blush sounds like it’s saying “the Mall should be more of a high-speed freeway for my chauffeured SUV to the Capitol,” Senator Jim Webb’s letter to Mayor Fenty and the National Park Service is actually quite reasonable.

Webb is frustrated that illegally-parked tour buses on the Mall create traffic congestion, and writes, “While it is clearly in our mutual interest to promote local tourism and an appreciation for the National Capital Region, the severe traffic congestion associated with these sites must be significantly reduced.”

Fortunately, Webb comes up with fairly sensible proposals: greater enforcement of parking regulations, designated bus parking areas, and even increased use of Metro to get to and from the Mall.

Mike DeBonis points out that DC very much would like to designate a tour bus parking area, but didn’t get a federal grant to set one up in the Mount Vernon Triangle area. DeBonis also suggests that perhaps if the Park Service allowed a Circulator bus, more tourists could ride it, and cites our “typically exhaustive” coverage of this issue. (Thanks!)

It’s good that a federal lawmaker is taking an interest in this issue because the decisions about the Mall are almost entirely made by the National Park Service and very little by the DC government.

The disappointing element of Webb’s letter is that it’s clear he’s primarily thinking about the experience of those who drive through the Mall. The Mall provides a beautiful drive along Independence Avenue, but that same area is horrible for pedestrians. Walking from the Washington Monument to the Tidal Basin gives the distinct impression that you’re an unwelcome guest in a freeway median.

NPS responds to the pressures from Congress, which sets its budget, and many members of Congress are driven through the Mall to work. Their influence also contributes to NPS’s focus on making its parkways, like the GW Parkway, “safer” for drivers by straightening and widening curves, which ironically only makes drivers go faster and creates a new need to straighten more curves for “safety.”

I often choose to drive through the Mall and GW Parkway when going between DC and Virginia because its roads are often less crowded than other roads, and have fewer lights. But I strongly avoid going to the Mall on foot. This isn’t how our parks should be.

All in all, however, Webb should be commended for suggesting entirely reasonable solutions to a congestion issue: better enforcement of existing laws, and alternatives including transit.

 
 

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