City Council says duck boat tours approval requires further research

May 28, 2013 by

RTD MascotThe proposed addition of duck boat tours as part of New Orleans’ tourist attractions was discussed at length by the public in today’s New Orleans City Council Transportation Committee meeting. Ultimately Councilmembers Guidry (District A), Palmer (District C), and Gray (District E) declined to vote on this issue today, citing the need for additional research.

Representatives from the New Orleans Steamboat Co. and Ride The Ducks International LLC made a presentation in favor of the proposal and made available to meeting attendees a “Frequently Asked Questions”  handout from the NOLA Ducks website. Key supporting arguments included that the “Ride the Ducks” tour is a family-friendly attraction and that the tour would support the recently-launched “Follow Your NOLA” tourism campaign by taking participants to see Lake Pontchartrain.

The tie-in to Higgins Industries as a manufacturer of the so-called predecessor (the “Higgins Boat”) to the vehicles that will be used for these tours was also noted. (I would like clarification regarding precisely how these two craft are related; it has been suggested that the connection is quite tenuous at best.) Additionally, the presentation highlighted the fact that “a few duck boats” were transported from Branson, Missouri to participate in rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina, noting this as being significant to these vehicles now being used for recreational tours in New Orleans.

I spoke in opposition to the addition of duck boat tours in New Orleans with the following statement:

“While the Ride The Ducks tours have presented their various tie-ins to New Orleans, I have to ask: Why must New Orleans, which is frequently referred to as one of the most unique cities in the world, copy the attractions found in other cities?
“Speaking as a former longtime resident of the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle, the duck boat tours were not appreciated by the residents of that neighborhood. They passed before my home a few times each hour throughout the day while en route to visit the Fremont Troll attraction and the Lake Union boat launch. There was never such a thing as a ‘quiet approach’ and they were viewed as a major detraction to living in that neighborhood.
“In Key West, Florida, one company was permitted to operate tours and other subsequent tour operators were essentially prohibited due to the traffic issues created by the vehicles. The city was sued for basically endorsing a monopoly and lost the lawsuit to the tune of eight million dollars. If we welcome one tour operator, we welcome all, and I’d bet that there is at least one additional potential operator waiting in the wings.
The duck boat tours, while operating throughout the United States and internationally, are hardly unique. As the operator’s presenters have noted, they are everywhere. In terms of this proposed entry into the New Orleans market, they should be viewed as an invasive species.”

Other members of organizations and the public who spoke in opposition noted that while the route would be limited due to the size of the vehicle, buses exceeding 31′ in length routinely travel throughout the French Quarter without consequence although such travel is currently prohibited. Traffic congestion on Decatur Street was cited as a primary concern due to double-decker buses, mule-drawn carriages, and all other forms of permitted traffic. Some expressed opinions that, operating as a “party on wheels,” the tours would degrade the historical ambiance and character of the French Quarter.

Noise issues along the route throughout the city were also cited, resulting from the open-air design of these vehicles, amplified music, sing-along activities, and plastic novelty “quacker” devices that are distributed to tour participants. While the tour operators carefully noted that “Ride the Ducks will abide by all noise ordinances, in place now or instituted in the future, and will enforce quiet zones on N. Peters and St. Peters Streets where there will be no narration, music or quackers,” this consideration will only be limited to a portion of the tour’s route throughout the city. It was also stated that any additional measures to address noise considerations would require the creation of new ordinances (remember, however, that the existing noise ordinance has been in the process of being revised for almost two years’ time).

The significance of the plastic novelty quacker devices deserves careful scrutiny. If there are twelve tours operating daily as proposed, each with a full load of 37 passengers, 444 quackers would be distributed daily, or as many as 3,108 each week, and it is possible that more than 161,000 quackers could be distributed each year. (Meanwhile, the tour’s operators have stated that they anticipate a total of 50,000 participants annually… I’m curious as to how they calculated that figure, as it would suggest just four tours being conducted each day — not twelve.) Anyone who remembers the noisy Krewe of Muses vuvuzela throw in 2011 should realize that this could become a significant and daily annoyance throughout New Orleans.

Councilmember Guidry noted in particular the Florida anti-trust lawsuit issue and several safety concerns. She asked a representative from the Ride The Ducks company about whether or not these vehicles were traveling on Interstate thoroughfares in other tour locations; the representative replied, “I don’t know if this happens elsewhere.” This is a potentially significant safety consideration, as it is unclear whether or not safety belts are available to the passengers who will be riding in these canopied yet open-air vehicles.

Councilmember Guidry also inquired about 19 deaths that have occurred since 1999 on tours operating in the United States and abroad; it should be also considered that these vehicles have been involved in numerous accidents that did not result in deaths. In reply to this concern, the representative noted that all of the vehicles would be inspected and certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. (But consider this: weren’t the vehicles involved in each accident also similarly inspected and certified?) Councilmember Gray’s brief remarks also focused on safety concerns, particularly inquiring about the ratio of accidents to the overall operation of such tours.

Councilmember Palmer inquired of the operators of the proposed tours if they would agree to the tour pick-up/drop-off site to be located elsewhere other than the Toulouse Street Wharf; the response was that doing so “would not be economically feasible.” She asked also if the distribution of quackers could be prohibited; the representative replied that doing so “would detract significantly from the tours.”

It is unclear whether or not City Council, as a body, has any definitive role in the issuance of For Hire Vehicle Certificate of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNC) licenses, and it was suggested that Mayor Landrieu would not support any restriction on the issuance of such licenses for tour operation purposes. However, as the licenses for operating the double-decker tour buses were issued without public consideration before the Council’s Transportation Committee, Councilmember Palmer stated, “We have to take a step back and consider this carefully — and we’ve not done this.”

The Transportation Committee decided not to vote on this issue today, citing the need for additional review of this matter by the city attorney. Malachi Hull, the City of New Orleans Taxi Bureau Director, agreed that no CPNC licenses would be issued prior to the conclusion of this review as well as the occurrence of another public hearing regarding the issuance of licenses for the purpose of duck boat tours.

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