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BY DUSICA SUE MALESVIC
Backers of a proposal to cap the number of tourist buses in Lower Manhattan made their case at Community Board 1’s Quality of Life Committee meeting this month, but residents already strongly support the idea.
“That would be fabulous for our neighborhood,” said Mary Perillo, who has lived across from the World Trade Center site for more than 30 years. “They’re horrendous for traffic — both vehicular and pedestrian.”
Perillo and other locals have long complained about the number of tour buses on Downtown’s streets. Residents have said they pollute, block crosswalks, and add to the area’s congestion problem.
A bill introduced by Councilmember Margaret Chin and co-sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer would limit the number of license plates for sightseeing buses to 225. The Dept. of Consumer Affairs oversees and approves the licenses and, as of now, there is no limit.
Chin’s legislative director Vincent Fang said that in 2003 there were 57 sightseeing double deckers, but that figure more than tripled over the next decade to 194 in 2013, before leaping by nearly 65 percent in a single year to reach 299 in 2014.
The number fell to 229 this year when several of the operators went out of business, according to Fang, but even with the recent drop, the dramatic surge he outlined confirmed the impression among locals that sightseeing buses are running amok Downtown.
“I think this is incredible,” said CB 1 chairwoman Catherine McVay Hughes. “The statistics that he’s saying — it’s not your imagination that the number of double-decker tour buses has increased. We have very congested streets.”
Fang said his boss’s bill would at least keep the problem from getting worse.
The D.C.A. did not comment on the proposed legislation, but said Chin’s figures for the number of tour buses were a bit off, claiming that there are only 216 double deckers on the road.
Still, the agency’s figures on tour companies give Downtowners good reason to worry that the number of buses is set to explode again without a cap.
There were 15 companies authorized to run bus tours in 2014 when the number of double deckers peaked at nearly 300, and seven of the companies have since gone out of business, taking between 70 and 83 tour buses off the road. But according to the D.C.A., nine more tour bus companies have applied for new operating licenses.
There is no limit to the number of tour buses an individual tour company can put on the road, so it stands to reason that if the number of companies goes up to 17, their combined fleet could easily grow to more than 300 vehicles — unless a cap is in place.
“If this bill passes, the D.C.A. will no longer be able to provide any more active license plates to companies until it drops below 225,” Fang said.
Tour-bus plates cost between $75 and $100 per vehicle depending on the term of the license, so the licenses are not exactly a money-spinner for the city, but the double-decker dreadnoughts dominating Downtown streets can be real cash cows for the tour companies — and not because of the tourists inside the buses, but rather the ads on the outside.
It can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 for a wraparound advertisement on a double decker bus cruising the streets of Manhattan for one month, according to Blue Line Media, a national advertising firm — and that’s on top of a $15,000 one-time fee for printing and installation.
Hughes suggested that the industry’s true business model — and the real reason for the dramatic proliferation of double deckers — isn’t about showing tourists around Manhattan, but about showing Manhattanites ads.
“Only after someone told me how much money they had to pay to advertise on a double-decker tour bus did I understand that a large component the financial success of running a double-decker sightseeing tour depends on the advertising earned by being a moving billboard,” Hughes said. “This explained why double decker tour buses would run even if they were almost empty.”
Major tour-bus operators Gray Line and Big Bus Tour declined to comment for this story.