Busing Options to CVC Stir Controversy

Posted April 1, 2008 at 6:34pm

With the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center just months away, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse and the private bus industry’s top spokesman offered radically different views Tuesday of a plan that would use public buses to bring visitors to the facility.

Under current proposals, visitors traveling on private tour buses would get to the CVC by walking from a drop-off point on the West Front of the Capitol or by riding a special Circulator bus at Union Station, which would cost $1 and drop people off directly at the site.

Private buses are banned from the streets immediately surrounding the CVC because their concealed luggage compartments are considered a major security risk, Morse testified. Using public buses would ensure Congress stays safe while visitors easily reach Capitol Hill, Morse told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.

But Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, said the proposal would create “a disaster” on Capitol Hill, and Members seemed in agreement that changes must be made to the transit design before the CVC opens in November.

“I think this bears some further scrutiny,” said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full panel. “We should not let security concerns become another impediment between the people of this country and the Capitol.”

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in a series of recent debates over how best to bring out-of-town visitors to the $621 million facility.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Morse said that with security needs paramount and little space available for parking near the Capitol, the transit plan is sound. And other options, he said, are limiting.

Screening the private buses near the Capitol would be costly — more officers likely would have to be hired and expensive equipment would be needed. In addition, the screening process itself would cause additional traffic problems on Capitol Hill, he said.

Dropping tourists off at Union Station would allow the buses to have a hub — which many currently lack, Morse said. Tourists can also use the Circulator to visit other D.C. sites, such as the museums and monuments on the National Mall.

“I think overall, it’s a really good plan,” Morse said. “It’s connecting all the dots.”

But Pantuso has his doubts. He told the panel that the Circulator buses are smaller than most private tour buses, which would force larger groups to separate.

“There’s a tremendous liability when you begin to split those groups up,” Pantuso said.

Pantuso added that there is not room at Union Station for the private buses to park. There is space at the station for 35 private buses; in peak tourist season, up to 1,000 buses come to D.C. each day, Pantuso said.

Security-wise, private buses aren’t any more dangerous than city-run buses — and might actually be safer, Pantuso said. Private bus drivers and guides undergo background checks, and those employees know exactly who has boarded the bus, Pantuso said.

“Their security comes from knowing who is on the bus,” he said. “That is not the case when the bus is a city bus.”

Subcommittee Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she hopes to find a solution that balances all concerns in the coming weeks.

Norton asked Morse, Pantuso and D.C. Department of Transportation Director Emeka Moneme to arrange a follow-up meeting with her so the various options can be hashed out.

She isn’t the only one studying the issue. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, also has asked Architect of the Capitol officials to study alternative transportation plans for the CVC.