What is the best way to manage Alexandria's increasing motorcoach traffic within the Historic District? Is the potential revenue worth the aggravation in increased vehicular congestion and residential disruption?
Those were the two primary questions posed to the Motorcoach Task Force back in February 2004 when the City Council charged the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association with establishing the group "to develop recommendations ... for motorcoach management within the city limits, with a main focus on the Historic District."
An interim report, prepared for a council work session on May 3, concentrated on "suggestions to enhance the economic benefit of motorcoach tours to the city ... while minimizing negative impacts to business and residential communities." This was accomplished through two phases according to the report: "(1) Research and (2) Formulation of solutions and recommendations."
"We concentrated on three principal elements, the economic impact, routes through the city and parking," said Mary Ann Russell, chair of the 25-member task force comprised of tourism industry officials, local business representatives, and city residents.
"We have minimal space in the city for motorcoach parking. However, we identified approximately 17 areas where motorcoaches could park where it would be reasonable for the drivers and not adversely impact residents," Russell said.
That list was submitted to the council and city manager. The city will narrow it in preparation for a planned September meeting of the task force, according to Russell. "Some of the areas we had identified for potential parking are scheduled for development according to the Department of Planning and Zoning and are not feasible," said Jo Anne Mitchell, ACVA executive director.
"The purpose of the interim report was to explain to council and the city manager what we had done so far and to ask what else they needed or wanted," Michell said. "We removed from parking consideration any residential street. We were looking for commercial/retail locations that wouldn't mind parked buses."
IN ADDITION to the parking situation there is the movement of the large tour buses through the city, particularly on many of the narrow street of the Historic District. This poses problems to both the bus drivers and local traffic, moving as well as parked.
One of the items cited in the report which "The Task force reached agreement on" and requested "immediate action to resolve" was the "Narrow turn radii on specific neighborhood streets" which "may require removal of parking spaces near corners or other remedies."
There are instances where bus drivers find themselves trapped in a turn too narrow to navigate.
One of the solutions to alleviate this would be to set prescribed routes for tour buses. However, as stated in the report, "While the Motorcoach Management Subcommittee recommended a restricted motorcoach route to the task force, the majority of task force members believed designated routes would cause congestion on those streets that were so designated."
Asked about the possibility of designating routes, Tom Fairchild, business facilitator, city manager's office, and task force member, said, "We don't have any ordinance that says buses can or can't be on certain streets. And, even if we did designate certain routes we really don't have any way to get that information to the various bus companies."
Poul Hertel, another task force member, said, "We thought about designating routes but decided against that in favor of just letting them pick their own routes."
His assessment of the task force's main mission was "to find parking areas adjacent to Old Town. We felt it was important to find places closer in than Eisenhower Avenue due to the time required to get back and forth to Old Town."
This emphasis on routes and parking was verified by task force member Carolyn Merck. "Essentially the issues and problems were nicely documented. The biggest parking problem was to find areas of long-term parking to benefit the drivers," she said. Prior to commencement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction project and restrictions imposed since 9/11, buses would park under the bridge while awaiting their passengers.
"ONE OF THE MOST interesting elements of the task force is the discrepancy between those members representing residents and those representing the tourism industry," Merck said. "That was apparent when we discussed whether to allow the big buses just to drive through the city on their way to other destinations."
On this point, the report states, "The majority of the task force understood the intrinsic value of drive-through motorcoaches; however, a few questioned the value of drive-throughs in comparison to the adverse affect on the community."
Merck said, "Not one cent is spent by those people (passengers on drive-through buses) on the local economy. Some members argued that people will see something interesting and return in their cars and spend money. But, there is no data to support that."
This disparity among task force members was summarized by member Katy Canady: "We haven't agreed to much."
PHASE II of the task force's efforts concentrated on the economic benefits of motorcoach tourism. In doing so, they "took a conservative approach to developing economic impact figures," the report states. The end result, according to task force research, is that "the motorcoach industry currently contributes approximately $17 million annually" to Alexandria's financial coffers. This is based on what an average tourist spends on meals, lodging and shopping during a two-day stay.
"We took a very low estimate scenario based on drive-throughs and those staying in the city up to two nights," Russell said. "We assessed everything in low economic terms so we could better defend our estimates."
As noted in the report, "The motorcoach tour business greatly supports particular segments of the industry that are important to the character of the city as a tourism destination. Motorcoach tours provide the major income to many ... businesses, which, in turn, contribute taxes to the city.
"A loss of motorcoach tour business could, in many instances, contribute to the demise of some of Alexandria's most notable tourism experiences" and "an increase in motorcoach tour business would financially benefit these small businesses directly, as well as the city as a whole."
ACCORDING TO THE TASK FORCE there are two alternatives:
* No growth. If Council adopts this position "ACVA will not aggressively market to this (motorcoach) industry, thereby foregoing any economic benefit from future expansion of motorcoach tourism."
* Strategic Growth. "If council wishes to increase the contribution of the motorcoach industry ... then council will need to direct ACVA to aggressively market to capture a large percentage of the motorcoach industry."
What neither the report nor the economic impact statistics address was the bottom line. In the report it was referenced as follows: "Could minor adjustments to the existing motorcoach amenities meet the needs of the existing industry and alleviate the adverse impact on business and residential areas of the city?"