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Why aren't there buses to the memorials?

There's no Circulator bus to the FDR Memorial. No bus to Hains Point. No Metrobus to the Jefferson Memorial or Lincoln Memorial, even though a variety of bus lines to Virginia pass right by them; the closest stops are at 14th and Independence or 22nd and Constitution, which aren't that close. On the Mall itself, east of the Washington Monument, many buses including a DC Circulator drive along Constitution and Independence, but none serve tourists on Jefferson and Madison Drives.

Photo by wallyg.

There is one bus that goes to all of these places: the Tourmobile. However, Tourmobile tickets cost $27 for adults and $13 for children. For some, it's worth it: riders get a running commentary on the importance and history of the memorials. But many people don't need the explanations. They just want to get to and from some great memorials, and don't want to have to drive. Plus, many of the memorials have scarce parking. However, the National Park Service has an exclusive contract with Tourmobile that prohibits other transit. They've continually renewed the contract since the Tourmobile began in 1969.

DC thinks there's a major need for "non-interpretive transit" on the Mall. They created a Mall loop on the Circulator, but can't run it on the interior drives where it would be most useful, and can't reach East and West Potomac Parks. The Park Service can't even put up signs pointing people to the Circulator. According to an official familiar with the creation of the Circulator, they actually offered to purchase the Tourmobile business so that they could take over the contract. That didn't work out.

At a July meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission, many expressed frustration with this system. "It seems strange that the park service would prohibit public, inexpensive transportation for visitors," said Harriet Tregoning. According to the Current (large PDF), NCPC Chairman John Cogbill complained of taking his elderly father to the Mall and having to choose between a difficult walk and a very expensive tour bus ride.

The contract expires this December, but the National Park Service doesn't plan to end or change the contract. From the Current article:

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. ...

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.

Why doesn't NPS care to add transit options? To some extent, this sounds a lot like the MTA and iPhone application situation. An agency controls access to something that's useful to the public. They feel that it's better to limit that access and raise as much revenue as possible rather than maximizing the public benefit. The MTA could benefit more riders by releasing its schedules, and NPS could help parkgoers by allowing the transit. But they don't, whether because of a misguided focus on doing deals with companies instead of fostering innovation, or because of management pressure to earn as much revenue as possible.

Another factor is Congress. In 2004, the House Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs of the Committee on Government Reform held a hearing called "How Can We Maximize Private Sector Investment in Transportation?" Then-DDOT Director Dan Tangherlini testified that DC wanted to provide service "to 92 percent of mall visitors who do not use current interpretive service, and the more than 70 percent of mall visitors
who would like low-cost, non-interpretive transit service." Tom Mack, Chairman of the Tourmobile, testified that this service would "destroy [his] business" because DC could use some federal funds to help operate transit service.

Doug Ose (R-CA), then-Chairman of the subcommittee, asked Tangherlini some pointed questions about a "squeeze-out effect," which Tangherlini disputed. He then said, "I am watching this and I will continue to watch this, and I will watch it until it is done or I am done, one or the other, whichever comes first." According to some observers, many, possibly including NPS, took this as a clear indication that he wanted NPS to maintain the exclusivity. Donald Manzullo (R-IL) of the Committee on Small Business held another hearing in 2001, entitled "Federal Government Competition with Small Business," which also featured Mr. Mack and sent similarly pointed signals on the issue. However, Congressman Ose lost his seat in 2008 left Congress at the end of 2004 and failed in a bid to return in 2008, and Congressman Manzullo is no longer a committee chair. Now that Ose "is done," perhaps NPS can revisit the issue, if they are flexible enough to realize that allowing more choices for visitors is in the best interests of everyone.

Mr. Mack and some Congressmen phrased the situation as a government-funded service competing with private services, as if the Tourmobile were profiting in a world entirely free of government regulation. But NPS has given them a monopoly. No wonder they can make money: they can charge a bundle and nobody has a choice. Most private businesses don't need a government monopoly to thrive if they have a useful product. We don't prohibit all public bus service from Loudoun County in an attempt to give a single private company a lucrative contract. (We do limit competition in airport taxis, which is another mistake.)

Visitors to the Mall need to be able to get around easily, and deserve a choice of options. The Tourmobile is fine for those that want it. NPS should continue to contract with them for the interpretive service. But they need to drop their policy of giving one transportation provider exclusive access to their grounds. The Circulator, WMATA, or any other transit agency should also be able to transport people to and from our memorials, and NPS should include them equally on signs. Their mission is to enable "the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations" in the park system. Contracting to limit access to their parks doesn't belong on the Mall.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Last time I checked, these were city streets, maintained and paid for by the residents of the District. If the Federal Government wants to change the relationship by eliminating Federal Taxes for District residents and also take on the burden of maintaining all of our streets, then this would be acceptable.

Of course, it really wouldn't be, but the imbalance here is ridiculous.

by William on Aug 20, 2009 1:14 pm • linkreport

Actually, William, many streets *aren't* controlled or maintained by the city, even if it appears they are. The rule of thumb I was taught as a wee thing was that green street signs indicated a city street, while brown ones were park service. Not sure if that's actually accurate, though.

by Distantantennas on Aug 20, 2009 1:17 pm • linkreport

While that is true, the last time I checked, the areas around the Mall and monuments (with the possible exception of Ohio Drive) all have green "DC" signage -- I am thinking of the various number streets, Constitution, Independence, and the auxiliary streets (Madison/Jefferson?) on the interior of the Mall itself, as well as the areas around the Capitol.

by William on Aug 20, 2009 1:31 pm • linkreport

I believe all the streets around the Mall (Constitution and Independence Avenues) and streets that run through the Mall are all federally funded as part of the National Highway System.

The Tourmobile monopoly is awful. But it's been that way for some 40 years. Inertia is a great political force. As are campaign donations. I'd be interested in whether Tourmobile has been making key campaign contributions over the years.

It does seem rather ridiculous for the Park Service to argue that even mere mention on the Mall that there are bus services other than $27 Tourmobile rides would violate the contract. Seems pretty clear that the Park Service has no intention of ever changing the monopoly or allowing any sort of alternatives to Tourmobile. Which makes me wonder if any former Park Service employees are now working for Tourmobile, or vice versa.

by Fritz on Aug 20, 2009 1:39 pm • linkreport

David, thank you for an excellent discussion of a very frustrating topic.

As a tour guide myself, I resent Tourmobile being given a government sponsored monopoly. If they wish to compete in a free market, more power to them.

It's quite frustrating to me when a group asks to begin their tour at the Lincoln Memorial or FDR. I have no easy way to get there that doesn't require a mile walk. Not that I'm adverse to walking, it's my main mode of transportation. I'm just against doing it to support Tourmobile's monopoly.

The "if you take away our monopoly, then private companies will take over our business" argument is one in favor of dropping the monopoly, not keeping it.

by TimK on Aug 20, 2009 1:39 pm • linkreport

Perhaps we should give FOXNEWS a call and tell them about this terrible socialized monopoly! I am sure they have a few nutcases available that could protest against Tourmobile. The way things work in DC, we can break that monopoly in a few weeks.

by Jasper on Aug 20, 2009 1:47 pm • linkreport

What this really demonstrates is that NPS should be banished from managing city property. They have a completely inappropriate mindset for the task. They treat city parks as if they were mini Yellowstones. To be preserved and protected from the threats of urban life, like outdoor cafes or other non-tourist-centric vendors.

I don't have much hope though. As long as Republicans can call funding for the Mall an attempt to keep lawns in DC green, and Democrats with overwhelming majorities don't fight back, the parks will continue to fail.

by Reid on Aug 20, 2009 1:58 pm • linkreport

I haven't been on Tourmobile since 1993, but I have to hope that their interpretation is better than Gray Line's. Some of the things they say on that bus are total BS. They're so inaccurate you'd think it was the Capitol Hill interns running the buses.

by цarьchitect on Aug 20, 2009 2:00 pm • linkreport

Reid, I don't get it either; the NPS has another thread of actually providing interesting things to do in their parks, but apparently that doesn't apply in dc.

by цarьchitect on Aug 20, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

along the lines of what Reid said i find it really offensive that the NPS won't put bike lanes on their roads. E.G along Military where it crosses RCP; on Park Rd and Tilden on the approaches to Beech Dr. -even though the city parts of those roads already have placed bikes lanes; on Piney Branch Parkway between Arkansas and Beech Dr., etc.

by Bianchi on Aug 20, 2009 2:06 pm • linkreport

Tsarchitect: Nope it sucks. It's not entertainingly wrong like a Hill intern, just stupefyingly boring. Trust me, I know boring tours, I've done boring tours, I'll do boring tours again in the future, and I don't think I'll ever reach the pinnacle of boredom of a Tourmobile guide. It's as if they take a look at a third grade play and say, "Ok, once more, but this time with less enthusiasm".

One thing I haven't been able to find out is if their guides are licensed by DCRA like the rest of us have to be. Not that a license is any indicator of quality, but it's one more hoop they don't have to jump through that other guides do. Getting six people to attest to my "good character and sobriety" was a challenge.

by TimK on Aug 20, 2009 2:11 pm • linkreport

This is not a situation unique to the National Mall, it is something NPS has had a problem with since its founding and continues to struggle with in every park in the country.

When NPS first began contracting for wilderness improvements (under direction from Congress in 1916), most national parkland was extremely remote. The mere prospect of profit was not enough to entice concessionaires to bid for contracts. So NPS sweetened the pot with various inducements including the 'right of first refusal'--the right for an incumbent contractor to renew their contract without competition.

In 1978 Congress changed the laws that gave incumbent contractors a virtual monopoly, having found evidence that this practice was not in the best interests of the public.

But NPS continues to fight legal battles with their concessionaires who want to enforce the contractual terms they agreed to decades ago. In 2002, Xanterra, Aramark, and Hamilton Stores sued NPS when NPS announced their contracts would not be renewed for Yellowstone Park under the 1978 law. They won their case in district court, but that was overturned by the Court of Appeals, which ruled in NPS' favor. The case went on to the US Supreme Court which granted certiorari--meaning they sent it back down to the Appeals court with the determination that the Appeals court had erred in ruling in favor of NPS. Thus the district court's ruling stood, in favor of the concessionaires.

I don't disagree that NPS could do things better, but it would sure help if the legislative and executive branches would write air-tight laws benefiting NPS and the public, that didn't get overturned by the courts.

by Ogden on Aug 20, 2009 2:12 pm • linkreport

The NPS actually does own both Independence and Constitution avenues west of 15th Street, plus all roadway segments in between. Road ownership is one of the fields in the Street Roadway Segments GIS layer available from OCTO.

Legally, can NPS actually prohibit the buses, or just the establishment of bus stops?

by thm on Aug 20, 2009 2:24 pm • linkreport

Actually, surprising discovery. I looked up anyone employed by "Tourmobile" on It looks like one employee, Tommy Mack, donated $1,000 to Norm Dicks (Democratic representative, Washington state) and $2,000 to Obama, all in the 2008 election cycle. Dicks is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which, I assume, oversees appropriations for the Department of the Interior, of which the National Park Service is a part.

So who is Tommy Mack? He's the owner of Tourmobile Sightseeing ( He was general manager from 1069 to 1981, when he bought it from Universal Studios.

In 2006, Mack financially supported Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who was on the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, which I assume as something to do with, well, National Parks. He ran for senate in 2008 and lost.

In 2006, Mack also donated to Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who served also served on the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands from 2003 to 2007.

2004 doesn't seem too damning. He donated to Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and George Radanovich (R-Calif.) in 2004, but neither of them seem to have committee assignments that deal with National Parks.

But in 2000, he donated to James Hansen, who was chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources (includes National Parks) from 2001 to 2003.

So yes. There's money involved.

by Tim on Aug 20, 2009 2:28 pm • linkreport

"They treat city parks as if they were mini Yellowstones."

This, to me, is the key point. For some reason, NPS has a hard time differentiating between the "wild" parks (Yellwstone, Grand Canyon, etc) and the "urban" parks (the Mall, Indepdence Mall in Philly, etc).

So in the one dimensional world of NPS, the idea of allowing multiple private busses, or public busses, or pedicabs or anything else is pure sacrilege. Do you really want to turn the bottom of the Grand Canyon into a food court? Of course not.

However, this thinking then gets extended to the National Mall and next thing you know, you can't find a place to buy a cup of coffee on the Mall and you can't have Circulator or other busses taking people to see the sights.

I have always felt that NPS should be broken up into two agencies. One to manage the truly "wild" parks, and one to manage the historic sites. Perhaps, turn the "wild" parks over the Bureau of Land Management and let the NPS focus on the historic sites. Talk to NPS employees. The ones stationed out West don't want to be stuck giving tours of Ford's Theatre and the one's stationed at historic sites would rather leave the agency before they were stationed at Yosemite.

But the again, this is an agency (NPS) that actually has two seperate and somewhat competing police departments. The Park Police, which patrol sites in and around DC, NYC, and San Fransisco, and the Law Enforcement Division of the Park Rangers, which patrol everything else. So a crime committed on the BW Parkway is investigated by the Park Police, but a crime committee at Fort McHenry in Baltimore is in the jurisdiction of the Rangers. In NYC there are actually some parks patrolled by Park Police and other patrolled by Rangers.

Makes no sense, but welcome to NPS, still operating as if Teddy Roosevelt was in charge.

by metronic on Aug 20, 2009 2:30 pm • linkreport

This is completely insane and illegal. Don't get me wrong, the Park Service could certainly prevent the DC government from setting up a bus station -- it's Park land, and DC can't use eminent domain against another Federal agency. We learned that one when Park Service blocked the unified Farragut Square station in the 1970s.

But the DC government can load and unload passengers from District-licensed vehicles anywhere in the District that it darn well pleases, including streets that cross Park land. The Park has already consented to the creation of city streets on its land -- indeed, I'm almost certain that the regulations giving this land to the Park Service stipulated that the L'Enfant/McMillan Plan roads are sacrosanct. Once there's a city street, the DC government has all the usual powers that any city government has over public streets, and those powers include the power to provide for the movement of people along city streets. The Park Service doesn't pull this kind of B.S. on New York City at the Harbor Parks or on Philadelphia at Indepenence Park. There's no reason why D.C. should put up with it here.

by tom veil on Aug 20, 2009 3:01 pm • linkreport

I can't say I care one way or the other about the Tourmobile monopoly, but if they get rid of it, they should also ban private cars from Madison and Jefferson streets. They already come to a halt on busy weekends. If you add more cheap buses without taking the cars out, then the traffic will be terrible. Besides, if there are cheap buses, then there is no reason to need to take a car right down the middle of the Mall anymore.

The heavy amount of private motorcoach traffic is a big reason the traffic moves so slow, but I wouldn't think of banning the motorcoaches. I smile every time I see one. Can you imagine twenty or more private cars taking the place of one motorcoach?

by Omari on Aug 20, 2009 4:17 pm • linkreport

Omari, good point. But a good chunk of those coaches down there are parked while their groups are elsewhere. Technically, most of the area is drop off/pick up only for the coaches, but all the bus drivers know that the Park Police will only ticket once a month or so. The lack of consistent enforcement rewards rule breakers, and so guides and bus drivers park (and often idle) for hours.

The basic problem is that a group drops off at, say, the Capitol and the bus has to go somewhere. The driver, who doesn't personally pay for gas but often has to pay for parking, parks down at the Mall, the Southwest waterfront, or, I kid you not, circles around town waiting for me to call and tell him our tour is over. It's unbelievably wasteful, but what else do I do with a big honking bus for two hours?

by TimK on Aug 20, 2009 4:28 pm • linkreport

No-bid contracts, automatic contract renewals, government-granted monopolies -- we can do better than this. NPS isn't doing anybody any favors, other than Tourmobile.

Remember NPS initially didn't even want a Metro station on the Mall!

by Gavin Baker on Aug 20, 2009 4:28 pm • linkreport

@tom veil: Remember that D.C. is ultimately under the complete control of Congress. So if what you're saying is true, NPS will just ask Congress to make it untrue, and it will be so. Other cities could take NPS to court or something, because the state, be it Pennsylvania, New York, or whatever, is a state and has power under the U.S. Constitution. D.C., on the other hand, does not.

by Tim on Aug 20, 2009 4:29 pm • linkreport

"It's unbelievably wasteful, but what else do I do with a big honking bus for two hours?"

There is actually a tour bus parking lot off of South Capitol Street accross the Anacostia River (next to the Navy Annex). Its a giant gravel lot. During the week you will see MD and VA commuter busses there, but on weekends, even big weekends like Cherry Blossoms and Memorial Day, its empty and the tour busses are packed along Maine Avenue in SW.

I don't know if its not publicized or if the drivers simply don't care, but its always underused.

The city should convert one lot at RFK to tour bus parking. Publicize it, enforce the current no parking rules, and install some bathrooms and even a small concession stand for the drivers while they wait.

by metronic on Aug 20, 2009 4:46 pm • linkreport

The RFK idea would be great, at least until/if RFK gets developed. Especially a concession stand where they could get lunch. The only hiccup is how to get buses there. Currently, the Capitol Police ban tour buses from Independence and Constitution and, more theoretically, most streets on Capitol Hill are off limits to buses.

Hadn't heard about South Cap lot, I'll have to check it out and see if it's publicly available. That would be convenient.

by TimK on Aug 20, 2009 4:51 pm • linkreport

"The Park Service doesn't pull this kind of B.S. on New York City at the Harbor Parks or on Philadelphia at Indepenence Park. There's no reason why D.C. should put up with it here."

NPS dumps on other cities as well. Check out the no-bid exclusive contract to take people to the Statue of Liberty, for example (a contract opposed by nearly every elected official in NY and NJ) or the security zone in the park behind Independence Hall (what would Ben Franklin think about having to go through a metal detector to enter a public park! one that he used to sit in!).

Its a dysfunctional agency that is trying to use the same rules to adminster vast open and natural National Parks; Parkways that are, in essence, commuter routes, and historic sites in urban centers. It doesn't work. Throw in some security paranoia, and it really doesn't work.

by metronic on Aug 20, 2009 4:51 pm • linkreport

Regulatory capture. If only there was a poster on this blog who has been calling this out for the previous year...

by MPC on Aug 20, 2009 5:11 pm • linkreport

It's rather magnanimous of the Park Service to permit the Georgetown Blue Buses and GUTS transit to drive over the Key Bridge, as they own about 25 yards of Lynn Street at "Rosslyn Circle."

by Joey on Aug 20, 2009 7:04 pm • linkreport

Did anybody know that the NPS maintains more roads than the entire Interstate system?

If so, you have read the same book as I did.

by Jasper on Aug 20, 2009 9:08 pm • linkreport

It's been a long time since I looked at this but the reality is that Tourmobile generates a lot of money (relatively) for NPS. Since they are underfunded, and by law 80% of the concessionaire income must be used in the park where it is generated (in this case the NPS parks in DC), they are inclined to continue to support the current system.

There's no reason why a competitive system couldn't be created and bid against Tourmobile, and figure a way for it to accomplish multiple objectives by providing a different array of services to different places on a different payment schedule.

Someone could do a market survey of the value of the Tourmobile service as expressed by riders.

By doing this kind of planning study (different from what NPS did a few years ago) maybe it would be possible to break through the logjam.

Managing the transportation demand is a broader question than Tourmobile. (And the NPS transportation studies from a few years back are no longer available online.)

by Richard Layman on Aug 21, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

Just a minor quibble with something you wrote:

"However, Congressman Ose lost his seat in 2008..."

Rep. Doug Ose retired from the 3rd Congressional District of CA in 2004 after imposing a term limit on himself. In 2008, he ran, unsuccessfully, for the Republican nomination in the 4th District. So he never "lost his seat".

by Eric on Aug 22, 2009 10:55 pm • linkreport

Firstly, almost all monuments are accessible via a short walk. If you are not handicapped, old, or fat, you can walk to pretty much all memorials.

Secondly, if you have the cash to tourist-vacation DC, then you should be able to eat the cost of a $5 taxi.

In terms of Turismobile cost, they are in line with what you find in London/Paris/etc. I don't know if other cities give exclusive contracts to these companies.

by dc_publius on Aug 23, 2009 11:33 am • linkreport

Many people are handicapped and old. Or small kids. If you fall into one of these categories, you should be able to visit the Memorials and not be forced to drive, or pay a government sponsored monopoly $27.

The Lincoln Memorial, to pick just one, is a mile from the nearest Metro stop. That's not a bad walk on most days, but on a sweltering DC summer day, it's miserable. Especially since options for finding water in the area are limited and facilities are sub-par (restrooms, changing areas, food and beverage, etc.).

Many visitors are not tourists coming from elsewhere, local visitors. Of course, many locals don't go because we know not to drive there and it's inaccessible otherwise. So unless we put in more parking, which I'm sure the vast majority of us will agree is a bad idea, the Memorials will remain a pain in the rear for locals to go to.

I don't know (or really care) what equivalent costs are in London, but I'm quite sure mass transit isn't $27, no matter what the pound is doing.

by TimK on Aug 23, 2009 12:00 pm • linkreport

"The NPS actually does own both Independence and Constitution avenues west of 15th Street, plus all roadway segments in between".

Is this why there aren't any bike lanes in the mall?

by wd on Aug 24, 2009 9:41 am • linkreport

Apparently people are writing about subjects they have no information on.

The Tourmobile operates on Federal Land only and therefore NOT under the control of DC.

The mission of the NPS is not mass transit but to ensure access and enjoyment to the parks by visitors.

Mass transit is the responsibility of cities not the federal government.

The circulator is 100% funded by taxpayers and does not have to worry about functioning as a normal business, i.e, make sure there expenses are covered by what actually make. Tourmobile is privately owned and as a concessioner pays the government a portion of their receipts. It costs the taxpayers zero dollars.

For all of the bad-mouthing of Tom Mack, he passed away in July. You people should be ashamed of yourselves.

by Jay on Sep 2, 2009 6:01 pm • linkreport

Jay: I don't think anyone is saying Tourmobile or NPS should be in the business of mass transit. What many of us are saying is that they shouldn't be blocking DC's attempt to bring mass transit to the Mall under the guise of an exclusive contract. I'd like to point out your second para where you point out that the NPS's mission is to "ensure access and enjoyment to the parks by visitors". How is that mission furthered if it is blocking access?

I certainly harbor no ill will personally to Tom Mack, or any other Tourmobile employee. Nor did any other poster, they simply pointed out campaign donations to key members that then helped Tourmobile, a legitimate thread of inquiry.

I don't really agree with you that the Federal government does not have a role to play in mass transit, especially in the Nation's capital, but that's not the issue here. A DC entity is trying to do it's job, but being blocked by agency of the Federal government. Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way, NPS.

by TimK on Sep 2, 2009 8:37 pm • linkreport

now they are trying to block out pedicabs

by shamir on Jul 19, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

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