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What About Buses?

In the tortured, costly, nine-years-and-counting gestation period of the Capitol Visitor Center, one might think that someone in charge would have asked: “Hey, what do we do with tour buses?”

It turns out, actually, planners did ask the question — but they failed to find an adequate answer. And, with officials now planning to ban almost all tour bus traffic around the Capitol as an anti-terrorism measure, the problem is still open for study. It’s just the latest glitch in the CVC tragi-comedy.

One of the major reasons we and others advocated building the CVC in the first place was to spare tourists from standing outside in long lines in summer’s heat, winter’s cold and frequent rainstorms before getting into the Capitol. Another top rationale was to provide a security screening area for Capitol visitors. Now it looks as though those considerations may conflict, with tourists possibly being forced to face the elements in the interests of security.

The original CVC plan — only now being upended — was for tour buses to drop passengers off and pick them up near the facility’s entrance on First Street on the east side of the Capitol grounds near the Supreme Court and Library of Congress.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, the former chief of the Capitol Police, now says he and other security officials have harbored concerns about that plan for more than four years. “The buses are the least secure vehicles traveling around the Capitol,” he said this week, “so we’ve always been concerned about an improvised explosive device on a vehicle.”

Unfortunately, this “concern” did not lead to finding a new solution for the bus problem, even as post-2001 security upgrades added multimillions to the estimated cost of the CVC. In retrospect, it also seems ridiculous that the CVC’s original planners failed to contemplate the traffic mess that unloading and loading hundreds of tour buses would have created on First Street.

Now the Capitol Police plans to ban almost all private tour buses from Independence and Constitution avenues and First Street. Gainer is promising that a new plan for handling bus parking and tourist traffic will be developed by the time the CVC opens, now targeted for fall 2008.

Possibilities under discussion include drop-off points at Union Station or RFK Stadium, with shuttle buses provided to get tourists to the CVC entrances, or continued use of the current bus parking area on First Street near the West Front at the foot of Capitol Hill, with golf carts transporting tourists to First Street near the East Front.

We certainly hope a transfer site can be found that’s closer than RFK. And we certainly hope that by the time the CVC opens, planners can figure out how to keep Capitol visitors out of the rain.

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