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Big Buses,Small Streets

Finding a win-win solution for motorcoaches.

The maneuvering of large motorcoaches filled with tourists on city streets has been a bane to many residents for years. Where should they be permitted to drive given the narrow streets? Where should they park to load and unload passengers? Is the revenue they purportedly bring worth the aggravation?

Finding answers to all these questions and others is now the goal of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Motorcoach Task Force which will make its final report to City Council in early 2005.

"They bring in a lot of money to Alexandria. But, we are trying to reduce the negative impact they have on the city and residents. We know it is big," said Jo Anne Mitchell, ACVA president and CEO.

ACVA's Board of Governors decided at its Feb. 17 meeting to form a task force to "include residents and additional business representatives" to "come up with recommendations to better manage motorcoach traffic and to target-market motorcoach tour operators."

During its initial meeting, Feb. 25, Task Force members decided the study would be divided into three phases:

* Phase One, March through June - Information gathering through panel discussions and presentations from all those with a vested interest in the subject ranging from motorcoach operators to Alexandria business representatives to City residents.

* Phase Two, July through September - Formulate ideas and solutions to be incorporated in the final report. This would encompass economic benefits, traffic management, and the impact on both residential and business communities.

* Phase Three - Presentation of the Task Force findings and recommendations to City Council sometime between October and Dec. 31.

PHASE THREE HAS been modified to designate Dec. 31 as the final completion date of the Task Force mission. "We will prepare a draft report in early December. It will be posted on ACVA's web site with a written draft at the visitors center. Then there's a 30 day comment period with a final report going to council by early spring. They will then hold public hearings," Mitchell said.

It was also decided at

The initial Task Force meeting agreed "all meetings will be open to the public. However, only the Task Force members and those requested to speak will actively participate in the meetings."

Task Force members were invited to serve "solely as an individual ... not representing any group or organization."

There is a public comment period at all meetings at the conclusion of the agenda, according to Mitchell. Input from the public is reflected in Task Force minutes distributed following each meeting.

In order to expedite compilation of the information gathered in Phase One, Task Force Chair Mary Ann Russell divided the group into three subcommittees to develop recommendations for the prime areas of concern: Motorcoach Management, Communication/Education, and Economic Impact and Measurements.

DURING THE SEPT. 16 Task Force meeting at City Hall, it was the Motorcoach Management subcommittee that drew the greatest public attention because it is concerned with the how, where and why of the rolling behemoths in Old Town.

Opening last Thursday's meeting, acting chair Ann Dorman said, "We are here to try and figure out how to manage motorcoach traffic in the city."

Andrew Palmieri, chair, Motorcoach Management subcommittee, said the committee had spent a great deal of time grappling with the routes. "We need to get a handle on parking facilities for motorcoaches. That will determine the routes," he said.

"We have narrowed potential parking sites to three locations at this point. But, motorcoach management will require both short term and long term solutions. We are looking for a balanced approach to satisfy everyone," Palmieri said.

The three potential parking sites identified on the "short term" plan were: The Masonic Temple, Business Center Drive, and the Eisenhower Avenue corridor.

"We will be visiting each of these to analyze them more fully," he said.

Palmieri indicated that the subcommittee would now be looking at potential routes for the motorcoaches. "We hope to report to the Task Force in October on potential routes. The main question is can we direct motorcoaches away from the Historic District and still maintain their objectives," he said.

"Once a determination is made, all motorcoach parking would be directed to the designated site or sites. Whatever we do, we have to be very evenhanded with all the motorcoach companies," Palmieri said.

"We have to come up with the long-term solution to present to council. It's going to take a lot of planning to do that," he said.

One such solution suggested by Townsend Van Fleet at the Task Force's June meeting was to emulate the procedure used in Charleston, SC. "Charleston is a model city for handling motorcoaches. They have a garage ... and charge motorcoaches for entering the city," he said.

"Alexandria should put into place an easy way for buses to check in when they arrive that does not block traffic. Fines should be imposed for motorcoaches blocking traffic, parking in inappropriate spaces and unloading passengers illegally," he said.

However, as also noted during the June meeting, "Because Alexandria has a large proportion of pass-through motorcoach traffic, the Charleston model may not work. We must convince the operators that Alexandria is a destination ...."

DURING THE PUBLIC comment period of this meeting, Alexandria resident Katy Canady gave her impressions as to what is done in other countries where many streets "are even more narrow than they are here." Having just returned from Great Britain, "I'm here as a recent ex-tourist," she said.

"They [motorcoaches] should only go on major thoroughfares where there is enough width. It important to do a study of the hierarchy of the streets," Canady said.

Linda Dickinson, president, Guild of Tour Guides and ACVA member, asked whether the experiences of the residents adjacent to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., had been studied when it came to motorcoaches idling while their passengers were sightseeing.

"They [residents] were persistent and threatened to take legal action unless the motorcoaches turned off their engines while parked," she said. "Finally, they found that negotiations between the Cathedral and the neighborhood association worked for a satisfactory solution."

Another Task Force member, Teresa Miller, suggested that a dialogue be initiated "with civic associations throughout the city." She specifically requested that residents and businesses of Mount Vernon Avenue area "be brought into the study."

Communication/Education subcommittee chair Ann Dorman said the goal of her group was to get a message out to all groups. "We have a draft PR piece but the actual message is dependent on the work of the other committees," she said.

The Economic Impact Subcommittee is charged with determining the "hard dollar amount from the motorcoach industry that is related specifically to Alexandria." During a previous Task Force meeting, it was noted, "ACVA's research shows that the number one reason people travel is for historical culture. They are also looking for small town retail shops and antique markets. This is everything Alexandria has to offer."

The next Task Force meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 21, commencing at 5:30 p.m. in Room 2000, Alexandria City Hall. Each meeting is approximately one hour in length with 30 minutes allowed for public comment beginning at 6:30 p.m., according to Mitchell. More information is available on the association's Web site ACVAmember.com.