The largest tour operator serving Beverly Hills says it will challenge restrictions the city imposed this month on tour buses traversing Rodeo Drive.

StarLine Tours of Commerce, which operates “hop-on, hop-off” and other tours of Beverly Hills, Hollywood and celebrity-studded neighborhoods, says the city’s move to ban tour vehicles over 10,000 pounds – and that’s most of them – from the world-famous shopping street, and a nearby drop-off stop, will cause major problems for its business. The ban, part of a larger overhaul of tour bus logistics in the city, could go into effect as early as the middle of December at the height of the holiday shopping season. Backers of the ban say it’s necessary because larger tour buses clog up the narrow lanes of Rodeo.

The city also plans in the next couple of weeks to open a tour passenger pickup and drop-off site in the heart of the famed Golden Triangle. This site would replace one that closed earlier this year, causing major headaches for tour operators. (See “Buses, Retailers Look for Break” in the April 13 issue.)

But this new site, on Beverly Drive near the Montage Hotel and just a block east of Rodeo, will also be subject to the same weight restriction. Tour vehicles with a total weight (including passengers) exceeding 10,000 pounds will still be relegated to two sites on or beyond the periphery of the Golden Triangle, forcing tourist passengers to walk several blocks to the ritzy shopping core.

So, only small “sprinter vans” carrying about a dozen passengers would still be able to travel on Rodeo or use the new drop-off spot. Almost all of the eye-catching double-decker tour buses and luxury coaches exceed the weight limit; even a so-called minibus with a capacity of two dozen passengers would be nearly triple the weight limit.

Merchant concerns

While StarLine, by far the largest tour operator serving the city, strongly opposes the council actions, other segments of the Beverly Hills business community have more nuanced views.

Some Rodeo merchants, for example, have periodically expressed concerns that large tour buses were causing congestion and making it difficult for local patrons to park and access their businesses. In fact, it was some of their concerns that prompted the city to begin looking into the issue a couple of years ago.

But they and nearby merchants are now concerned that the city’s moves may deter some tour companies from Rodeo and the Golden Triangle.

“I don’t think there should be any restriction on the tour buses,” said Thomas Blumenthal, chief executive of Geary’s Beverly Hills on adjacent Beverly. “It sends the wrong message.”

Earlier this year, one company that hires out buses and drivers to tour companies said that some international tour operators dropped Rodeo and Beverly Hills as a stop, choosing instead to drive through Rodeo and drop passengers off at the Grove mall in L.A.’s Fairfax District.

“They are now driving through the city instead of stopping. Most of them are going to the Grove instead now to do their shopping, with some going to the Citadel (an outlet mall in Commerce),” Joseph Martinez, sales manager at Commerce’s Nada Bus, said in April.

Decisions like this might have contributed to what appears to be a slight slowdown in the growth rate of tourists visiting the city this year.

Julie Wagner, chief executive of the Beverly Hills Conference and Visitors Bureau, estimated that the increase in tourists this year compared with last year is in the single digits, down from year-over-year double-digit percentage increases in previous years. More precise figures won’t be available until early next year.

The bureau issued a report in January that said 1.5 million people – 24 percent of all tourists – visited the city in 2014 via tour buses, spending an average $137 each. That came to $205 million in direct spending from tour bus visitors last year.

Wagner said that the biggest surge in tourists typically occurs in the summer months, followed by the holiday season.

Weighty buses

After closing the pickup and drop-off site on Rodeo near the Louis Vuitton USA store in January, city officials had promised to have replacement locations in time for the summer tourist season. What emerged instead was a partial solution: two new stops near City Hall, which is at the northeast edge of the Golden Triangle. The other major tour bus stop is on Third Street, east of the city library and behind the courthouse.

It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that city officials settled on the site near the Montage as the replacement stop near the center of the Golden Triangle. But the weight limit renders it useless for many tour operators. All of the coaches used by Nada, for example, are well over 10,000 pounds, with the standard coach weighing in at 45,000 pounds.

“Even our minibus that seats 23 people is 28,000 pounds,” said Kenny Hosokawa, the company’s general manager.

Hosokawa said the weight limit was not an issue for his company, but would impact his tour operator clients who hire his buses and drivers.

Steven Donaldson, owner of the Big Red Bus Co. in Hollywood, said he runs two double-decker buses a day along Rodeo. While he understands the safety and congestion concerns that drove the city’s weight limit, he said it will hurt his business and probably force him to buy one or two more smaller vans.

“No question that the lanes on Rodeo are very narrow; our drivers have just a couple inches clearance on either side. So I get why the city is acting,” Donaldson said. “But our passengers aren’t going to want to walk down from Santa Monica Boulevard, so I’m probably going to have to buy one or two more of those 14-passenger vans to comply with this.”

StarLine, however, has many more buses in Beverly Hills and would thus be hit much harder.

Challenging law?

An attorney for the company told the Business Journal last week that the tour operator strongly opposes the new restriction and will almost certainly challenge it in court on constitutional grounds.

“There’s a 100 percent chance that we will contest this statute, either on its face or when the first enforcement citation is issued,” said Jason Lieber, a founding partner in downtown L.A. law firm Lieber Williams & Labin.

Earlier this month, Lieber was the sole voice before the City Council opposing the weight restriction, which passed unanimously. After laying out the case for the ordinance violating the “commerce clause” in the U.S. Constitution, he had this to say:

“StarLine is by far the largest tour company in the city. They are diligent, almost neurotic about compliance and safety issues. They drug test and background check every employee. And most importantly for the residents and in terms of keeping the peace, StarLine, unlike other companies, uses headphones. There’s no loud noise coming from their vehicles. So this is not a bad actor and this is a company that pays taxes. I ask this body to take all those things into consideration … and reject this statute.”

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