The loud bang you hear is neither a bus backfiring nor an actual traffic accident, but it is a major collision between two interests vital to our city: tourism and quality of life. The issue at hand involves the need to balance the many benefits provided by motor coaches bearing tourists bearing dollars to spend, versus the very real noise, traffic congestion and pollution the buses create.
Alexandria has done such a good job of promoting itself that it is estimated the number of tour buses on our city streets have increased twelvefold in the past 13 years. On the positive side, this great increase in tourism has filled local hotels and restaurants with visitors, has generated needed walking traffic for our retail stores, and has provided vital tax revenue. Clearly, Alexandria needs to continue seeking ways to expand, not diminish, tourism in the city.
On the other hand, the motor coaches that bring these tourists are a nuisance at best and a safety and health hazard at worst. Old Town Alexandria is a national treasure precisely because it is an old, quaint walking neighborhood. Tour buses rolling down our residential streets at all hours dump pollution, awaken people sleeping in street-front bedrooms and pose safety hazards for those strolling our streets. Clearly, tour buses cannot be allowed to ruin our quality of life.
Fortunately, our local government has approached this potentially explosive collision of interests in a measured way. It created a task force last year to study the issue. This task force examined the current practices of tour buses, surveyed the ways in which buses impact the lives of Alexandrians and canvassed other, similar cities to see how they handle the issue.
The result of this study was a 10-point proposal to City Council of short-term measures to create immediate relief and issues to study for further action. Council approved the measures at two different sessions in March and the Alexandria police department began an active enforcement campaign against infractions, making the regulations clear to bus operators.
Several of these measures provide additional locations for buses to load and unload passengers, including two areas on the 100 blocks of North and South Washington streets (buses cannot remain at these locations more than 30 minutes). Another provision made the very bottom of King Street near the waterfront a permanent one-way westbound street. A third created a new short-term parking area on Wheeler Avenue. Alexandria police were also charged with making sure buses dont idle for more than 15 minutes, dont double park and dont use locations other than the designated parking spaces.
While these were needed and useful steps, not everyone was pleased with the actions. Some businesses in the 100 blocks of North and South Washington streets are concerned their businesses will be negatively affected by buses loading and unloading in front of their stores.
The measures also dont go far enough in that the on-line registration of tour buses that is being set up will only be voluntary meaning the city still isnt going to know for sure how many buses will be touring city streets, dropping off passengers and parking on any given day. In addition, the city needs approval from the Virginia state government to be able to regulate motor coaches as a class and therefore be able to control routes taken by all buses.
Prosperity and growth seldom occur without coinciding challenges. The challenges provided by tour buses are unlikely to abate as their numbers will probably continue to grow. Our local officials, however, are so far managing the issue in a manner that is cognizant of tourisms importance to our local economy while also remaining respectful of local residents needs. Tour buses obviously cannot be allowed to ruin or rule Alexandria, but everyone who is at times inconvenienced by them needs to remember an important truth: without revenues from tourism, our local property taxes would skyrocket.