Old Town: Not Just A Bus Stop


Ah, the burden of desirability.

As people across the country become aware of what Old Town has to offer, they have stopped by for a visit in increasing numbers, often in large groups, on motor coaches better known as tour buses to most people.

It is this attraction that has presented civic leaders with a delicate balancing act in recent years and resulted in the re-formation of a motor coach task force in Spring 2008.

This past March, the task forces work culminated in a set of short-term measures that the City Council then adopted. In spite of what some see as progress, others still begrudge the presence of the buses in crowded Old Town something that city officials know comes with the territory.

Motor coach visitation cuts both ways its something thats very good for tourism but we recognize that it does impact the quality of life in Alexandria. Anytime we have too much, we have to figure out how to deal with it, said Yon Lambert of the citys Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

Weve got a balance weve got to meet between the needs of the motor coach industry in tourism and the needs to regulate motor coaches in a historic place where we have great limitations on our infrastructure, said Rich Baier, the task forces chair.

In adopting the task forces recommendations, City Council allotted $25,000 to pay for development of an online registration system for motor coaches coming to Alexandria and made several regulatory changes to the cityscape.

In particular, the Council approved turning the lowest block of King Street between Union Street and The Strand into a one-way (westbound) stretch of road, added new short-term parking on Wheeler Avenue and removed metered spaces along the 100 blocks of North and South Washington Street to create new 30-minute parking areas for motor coaches in hopes of alleviating traffic stress on lower King Street.

Following the Councils action in March, the city went about counting the number of buses loading and unloading at designated points around the city on April 2 and April 4.

According to those results, the majority of motor coaches loaded or unloaded at Market Square, while the Washington Street sites saw the least action. On April 2, a Thursday in the citys peak tourist season, staff counted 64 buses using the four designated loading areas in Old Town and 67 buses on April 4, a Saturday.
Another period of monitoring motor coach traffic within the city will take place this month, Lambert said.
Police are tasked with enforcing the primary violations for motor coaches in the city: idling too long, double-parking, loading or unloading improperly and parking in a non-designated area, according to the city.
During the month-long period between the Councils approved recommendations on March 14 and April 13, city police handed out 51 warnings and three citations for motor coach infractions, requiring 180 personnel hours, according to the city.

The enforcement figures for that period exhibit some of the balance that the task force had worked toward. Of the three citations, one was given for idling and two for double-parking, and a combined 31 warnings were given out for parking too long or parking outside designated areas showing a willingness on the part of police to reprimand and educate bus operators, Baier said.

According to task force members, the motor coach violations being enforced are traffic violations that fall under police jurisdiction, as opposed to simply parking at a meter too long.

Generally, I think things are working much more smoothly because we provided additional spaces for motor coaches to load and unload on Washington Street, the major point of entry into the city, especially from Mount Vernon, northbound, Baier said.

As much as city officials would like to be able to plan for all of the buses visiting the city, they cant much to the chagrin of citizens concerned with cutting down excessive traffic in their neighborhood.
The online registration system addresses that, hopefully giving officials a more accurate idea of traffic for a given day.

Theres a perception that we know in advance that motor coaches are coming, but thats not always the case, said Stephanie Brown, president of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association and a member of the task force.

Brown went on to add that its nearly impossible to plan for groups from different parts of the country that are passing through the region and decide to have an impromptu afternoon in Alexandria.

Some people in Old Town do not see the developments in the same light, saying that the bus traffic detracts from Old Towns atmosphere. And, in situations where a business may have set up shop based on that atmosphere, buses could be harming the holistic image, in spite of any overall economic benefit.

La Refuge, on the eastern side of North Washington Street, was originally concerned about the possibility that metered spaces fronting the establishment could be eliminated. Now, with the spaces chosen for removal across North Washington Street, employees said that they had not heard any complaints from customers about buses outside.

Those spaces would have made a difference, said one of the servers, citing the potential for obstructed views and minimized exposure, as well as customers simply losing access to prime parking.

Several other businesses along the blocks of Washington Street affected by the motor coach loading zones have not had any problems with the recent changes.

The traffic (across Washington Street) helps us in a way, said Roger Faddoul of Old Town Deli, who has noticed a slight up-tick in customers from motor coaches loading and unloading near the deli.

At the Ross department store, too, where street frontage is directly affected by the new loading zone, store managers have not had any real problem with the motor coach presence.

They come and unload and leave, and then they come back later to pick people up, said Lawanda Thompson, adding that the exposure to motor coach passengers has probably resulted in a few more shoppers for the store.