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Mall transportation to undergo change

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The National Park Service is unlikely to renew its contract with Tourmobile, the sight-seeing bus company that has held exclusive rights to guided tours on the Mall since 1969, and is considering whether to allow bikes, pedicabs and the low-cost Circulator buses on streets it controls in the heart of Washington.

The Tourmobile contract, which has not been altered since 1989, will expire Dec. 31 and is unlikely to be renewed, according to park officials. Whether that means the contract will be put out for competitive bidding or abandoned in favor of other vendors and modes of transportation is still to be determined, Park Service spokesman Bill Line said.

After a summer of controversy about the sparse transportation options around museums and monuments, the Park Service also is in discussions about whether and how to allow rent-a-bicycle operator Capital Bikeshare to install stations for its bright red bikes on the Mall, and whether to allow the $1 DC Circulator bus to traverse Madison and Jefferson drives, rather than the busier Constitution and Independence avenues.

Pedicabs, whose operators have complained loudly about being harassed by Park Police when they try to pick up or drop off passengers near the museums, are also being discussed, Line said. The city this month issued final regulations for the vehicles, and Line said that when the federal agency has proposed rules, it will seek public input.

“At this point, we are exploring all options,” Line said. “We’ve been working on the larger National Mall plan and studying the transportation needs of our visitors. ... We’re meeting daily and we are resolved to try to get an answer to all these questions.”

He would not put a deadline on those studies but said changes are likely sometime this fall.

The biggest piece of the transportation puzzle on the Mall is Tourmobile. The private company, which transports 700,000 to 800,000 people a year, at $32 per person in recent years, paid the Park Service only $39,263 for its exclusive contract in 2010.

That was a dramatic drop from the $1.66 million Tourmobile paid for the years between 2004 and 2008. The reason is that if Tourmobile takes in more than $8 million, the Park Service receives 35 percent of the gross. If the company’s gross revenue is less than $8 million, the federal agency receives one-half of 1 percent of the gross.

The $1.66 million paid for the construction of two new concession stands north and south of the Lincoln Memorial, Line said.

The company has strongly defended its franchise. Now-deceased owner Tom Mack objected to the D.C. Circulator when it launched five years ago. “I believe this is an intentional infringement on my contract,” he said. The strength of that objection caused the Park Service to bar signs on the Mall from even pointing to Circulator routes.

“I think that period of history is just about over,” Park Service Director Jon Jarvis was quoted as saying in a Politico newsletter last week. “A lot of other alternatives are available.”

Some of those alternatives were barred in 1992 when U.S. District Judge George H. Revercomb ruled that the Park Service could enforce a long-ignored law that prohibits most commercial activity in national parks. Eight small tour van operators who had plied their trade behind the White House for two decades lost their access to tourists there. The van operators had said they were not invited to bid on the 1989 concession contract that Tourmobile won; the judge said the firms were so small that they could not possibly have qualified for the contract.

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