Capitol Visitor Center officials are deploying a new fleet of electric vehicles that they hope will address long-standing criticism of how the CVC accommodates disabled and elderly visitors.
Because of security restrictions, all tour buses must drop off their passengers on the opposite side of the Capitol from the CVC. Most visitors just walk, but the CVC provides specially designed golf carts for those who can’t make the half-mile, uphill trek.
But tour companies complain the carts are insufficient, especially for large groups of senior citizens and veterans. Officials from the Guild of Professional Tour Guides have testified to a slew of consequences, ranging from long waits for shuttles to groups of senior citizens climbing the hill with walkers.
In a recent report to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, CVC officials touted six new electric shuttles as sufficient to accommodate such visitors. The shuttles — which have wheelchair ramps and “all-weather enclosures— — would replace the older shuttles that are currently in use.
Two shuttles would be available during the CVC’s normal business hours, while the four additional ones would have to be requested by tour companies in advance.
According to the CVC’s report, “the most recent usage indicates that these six new shuttles will be sufficient to accommodate current demand.—
CVC officials recommended that the shuttle system go through a one-year “observation period.— Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), said committee members are reviewing the report, which they recently received.
But tour companies aren’t convinced.
Shirley Timashev, president of the guild, said that in a recent meeting CVC officials couldn’t guarantee that extra shuttles would be available for large groups, even when requested in advance. The shuttles are first-come, first-served; hence, if one tour company requested the four extra shuttles, those shuttles might be in use by another company when they arrive. For big groups of senior citizens or disabled visitors, that delay could mean missing a tour.
Timashev also challenged the CVC’s estimates for how many visitors need the shuttle. According to the report, about 14,000 visitors used the shuttles from March through July — about 1 percent of all Capitol visitors. But Timashev said many tour companies have cut the Capitol from their itineraries when they have disabled passengers because of the uncertainty of getting to a CVC tour on time.
“It is a system that might work during the months of the year when Washington, D.C., doesn’t have a lot of tourists,— she said. “But it would be overwhelmed by multi-bus groups.—
The guild has agreed to try out the new shuttles for three months.
Ideally, tour groups would like to be able to drop bus passengers at the CVC’s entrance; in fact, the entrance was built to accommodate precisely that kind of traffic. However, the Capitol Police has closed off First Street Northeast to tour buses because of security concerns, and officials say they don’t have the resources to screen so many buses.
The CVC is also considering using mini-buses that can hold about 30 passengers. In their report, CVC officials wrote that using buses would guarantee service and a climate-controlled environment. But the buses would also have to deal with traffic delays (since they would travel on the street, rather than on the Capitol grounds) and would necessitate additional security screening.