July 20, 2009
Dear Coalition Friends:
The Northwest Current reports below on what transpired at the National Capital Planning Commission's (NCPC) public meeting July 9th during which the Commission reviewed -- and then approved -- the National Park Service's Mall signage proposal.
You will recall that in our July 8, 2009 UPDATE announcing the NCPC hearing we wrote about the Park Service's plan for Mall signage that would exclude references to any basic transit and provide visitors information only about the Park Service's own concession, Tourmobile Sightseeing.
A pdf of the July 15, 2009 issue of the Northwest Current can be downloaded here.
THE NORTHWEST CURRENT
Park Service can’t advertise DC Circulator
By ELIZABETH WIENER
It costs $1 to hop on a DC Circulator bus that runs along the National Mall from the U.S. Capitol west to 17th Street on weekends. It costs $27 to take a commercial Tourmobile, albeit with a guide and jump-on, jump-off service that includes the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
But the National Park Service says it can’t tell the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Mall about the cheaper option. Because of its exclusive contract with Tourmobile, the Park Service’s comprehensive new signage program for the Mall and beyond won’t mention the Circulator at all.
“It’s an awkward situation,” said Steve Lorenzetti, deputy superintendent for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. “We have a concessionaire who by law has full rights within the park. It’s not allowed for anyone else but Metro [at its Smithsonian station] to collect fares.
“It’s not our intent to have an insular park in the center of the city,” Lorenzetti told the National Capital Planning Commission last week. “But currently, Tourmobile views the Circulator as competition.”
“The NPS currently does not provide detailed public transit information for bus routes on its maps,” officials said in a written statement to the planning commission.
The bus issue flared when the commission reviewed the signage program last Thursday. Several members were clearly frustrated that a low-cost public transit system, inspired by the commission and sponsored by Metro and the city Department of Transportation, won’t be advertised at the city’s biggest tourist attraction.
“The Circulator is part of the city,” said commissioner Herbert Ames. “If we don’t include it on signs, you’re leaving out the most important thing — public transit to and from the Mall.
He added: “Not everybody can pay $27 to ride Tourmobile.”
“It seems somewhat bizarre,” said Harriet Tregoning, the District’s planning director, who also sits on the federal planning panel. “A Park Service rule prohibits inexpensive public transit from [having signage on] the Mall?”
The commission voted 6-3 to give final approval for the signage program, which includes four-sided pylons and map kiosks showing attractions and facilities on the Mall and in East Potomac Park, as well as major destinations north and south of the Mall.
But chair John Cogbill also delivered a stern warning to the Park Service to provide better transit information. “I have limited patience right now with not providing what we ultimately need,” Cogbill said.
“Don’t put Tourmobile on the signs, either,” suggested Mike McGill, who represents the General Services Administration on the panel. “It’s free advertising.”
“They’re our concessionaire,” Lorenzetti replied. “They are us.”
A spokesperson for Tourmobile, which has offices next to the Park Service’s regional headquarters on Hains Point, did not return a call for comment.
Tourmobile, according to the company’s Web site, first won its contract to provide “low cost interpretive shuttle service” on the Mall in 1969. The contract has been renewed several times over the years, as the company built up its fleet, extended routes and, inevitably, raised prices.
Tourmobile’s “American Heritage Tour,” which includes Union Station, the White House, the Mall and Arlington Cemetery, costs $27 for an adult and $13 for ages 10 and younger.
But some tourists use only part of the route, apparently assuming it is the only option.
Cogbill told of bringing his elderly father to the dedication of the World War II Memorial. “Walking up and down the whole Mall was quite difficult,” he said. “Or you could pay $27 to go on a tour you don’t want to go on.”
Lorenzetti said Tourmobile’s current contract expires in December, but will “very likely be extended for another year. They’re doing us a favor by extending,” he said.
He said the concession provides revenue for the Park Service, and that the government would have to pay the company a monetary settlement if it broke the contract.
Meanwhile, the local Circulator system revved up in mid-2005. Commission staffer Nancy Witherell described it as “premium-quality transit,” with its frequent and regular service, recognizable red buses, simplified routes and low $1 fare.
“The National Park Service is proposing a sign program for the Mall and beyond,” Witherell said in a report to the commission. “In that spirit, inclusion of the Circulator is appropriate.”
The Circulator routes include a loop between the Capitol Visitor Center and World War II Memorial, using Constitution and Independence avenues. That route runs only on weekends, but officials say service could easily be added on weekdays. Another daily Circulator route crosses the Mall at 7th Street.
Tregoning noted that the service meets modern transportation goals, “reducing traffic congestion, providing cheap and convenient access. If you did let this contract [with Tourmobile] lapse, we would work with you on routes for the Circulator,” she told Lorenzetti.
“We have no plans to let the contract lapse,” the Park Service official replied.
Lorenzetti said the Park Service ultimately envisions a different transportation system for the Mall. But a master plan to guide it has been much delayed and is still undergoing environmental review, he said.
He said the Park Service is open to “working the Circulator into our system. It’s a discussion we had years ago, and we look forward to having it again,” Lorenzetti said.
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