In their latest move to ratchet up Congressional security, Capitol Police officials are poised to institute a new traffic-control system that will soon ban private tour buses from three main roadways around Capitol Hill.
In as soon as two weeks, private tour buses will no longer have access to Constitution and Independence avenues between First Street on the West Front and First Street on the East Front. In addition, the eastern First Street — which runs in front of the Library of Congress and Supreme Court — will be closed to private bus traffic.
As the plan stands now, city-run commuter buses along with vehicles run by the Tour Mobile company would be exempt from the new prohibition.
One challenge that police and Congressional officials say they are still working to resolve under the new bus access rules is where visitors will be dropped off for tours when the Capitol Visitor Center opens next year.
The CVC is being built beneath the East Front of the Capitol and originally was designed to include three bus drop-off and pick-up points along First Street. The entrances to the new facility are located just a stone’s throw from where East Capitol intersects First.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said Congressional security officials have had concerns with the original CVC bus drop-off plan for more than four years.
“The buses are the least secure vehicles traveling around the Capitol so we’re always concerned about an improvised explosive device on a vehicle,” said Gainer, who previously served as Capitol Police chief and is now chairman of the board that oversees the department. “Even back in my Capitol Police days we were pushing to do something different with the buses.”
The new bus plan was first presented to Capitol Police Board officials in January by Chief Phillip Morse. The plan follows on another new program instituted by Morse in January that is designed to keep would-be terrorists off-balance by featuring concentrated security sweeps at random times and in random locations around the Capitol complex. While board officials signed off on the new bus traffic plan, Gainer said implementation of the new procedures was put on hold so that all the relevant stakeholders — including various Congressional leadership officials and oversight committees, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and private tour operators — could be informed and brought into discussions. The new traffic plan likely will go into effect before the end of the month, if not sooner.
Currently, police officers are given wide discretion to stop and check any vehicle that comes through Capitol Hill, but besides the off-campus screening of delivery vehicles, blanket traffic stops are limited to instances where the department’s Transportation Interdiction Group Emergency Response Team is deployed, usually for specific threats.
“We understand that the Sergeant-at-Arms and the USCP have worked closely with city officials on this particular proposal in order to ensure the safety of the Capitol and its visitors without undue interference on the flow of traffic on city streets,” said a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “A comprehensive transportation plan for the CVC is still being developed.”
Gainer promised that by the time the CVC opens, a solution to the challenges created by the new bus access plan would be found.
“Making sure that any vehicles or buses or trucks that are in or around the Capitol are secure can be be done without impeding the goal of the CVC,” he said. “Even if there wasn’t a security concern, the traffic has grown so much even since the beginning of the [CVC] project along with the estimated number of people who are going to visit it, it would just be impossible from a traffic management point of view to on-load and off-load all those buses.”
He added that “the question of how you regulate the flow of traffic, dropping off and picking up, and getting people around is something that a whole group of people up on the Hill are working on.”
Potential ideas that have been discussed among Congressional and security officials include a shuttle system, perhaps from Union Station or even RFK Stadium, where private tour buses can off-load visitors who then will be transported via a shuttle that Capitol Police have pre-screened. That pre-screened shuttle bus system could be run by either Congress or a private company.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who is holding a hearing on CVC operations before her Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee this week, said she has been briefed on the impending bus access change and that she will be involved in developing a solution to the new CVC transportation problem.
“My concern as a representative here who wants to make sure tours are accommodated,is that they are left off close enough to the CVC,” Norton said.
Besides the Union Station shuttle plan that would have to be worked out with city officials, Norton said another course of action would be to continue to drop visitors off on the West Front along First Street — as visitors are now — and to have a larger fleet of golf cart-like vehicles available to move visitors around to the East Front. (One of the original reasons given for building the CVC was to give tourists protection from unpleasant weather conditions. A West Front drop-off without the carts would require visitors to walk or be moved all the way around the Capitol.)
Norton also noted concerns raised among those who live in the Capitol Hill community that the opening of the CVC could lead to buses parking in residential areas around the Capitol.
“The real question is where those buses go,” she said. “We will be having hearings on that.”
Several committees with jurisdiction over the Capitol complex weighed in on the new private bus access plan on Monday.
“We commend the Capitol Police for their continuous efforts to increase security around the Capitol complex and are very supportive of this particular security measure,” said Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.). Noting recently raised concern by Republican members of the panel that the newly formed subcommittee on Capitol security has yet to meet, Collins added: “GOP members of this committee feel that the safety of Members, staff and visitors is a paramount issue that demands rigorous oversight.”
Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said the new plan “is something that the U.S. Capitol Police has been looking into. No formal recommendation or request has been made to the Rules Committee or other Congressional leadership offices.”
“Clearly, the needs of the visitors and the security concerns must be balanced,” Gantman added. “Since the Capitol Visitor Center was constructed with the intent of visitors entering from First Street, one would hope that whatever plan the Capitol Police propose does not seriously impact that entranceway.”