Photo by wallyg.

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.

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 Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.