NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Tour bus operators are a step closer to paying the city hundreds of dollars in fees to resume tours of the rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina under way in the Lower 9th Ward.
A package of ordinances that restricts the buses to major thoroughfares and requires the special fees was introduced Thursday at the City Council.
The neighborhood was devastated when levees failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A 2006 law banned the tour buses from the area, but operators say many didn't know about the law until the city began enforcing it recently. They say the area is popular with visitors.
The proposed laws would permit tours to legally resume, but require hundreds of dollars in fees per vehicle for buses of 33-feet in length or smaller.
The council is expected to take final action on the proposed laws in December.
Tour vehicles would have to display a decal showing the annual fee - $350 per vehicle - has been paid. Fines could be imposed for vehicles caught in the area without a decal or those that venture off approved tour routes and onto residential streets.
A current ordinance bans tour buses from the neighborhood. It was passed in 2006 to keep tour operators from interfering with clean-up efforts. Many homes in the area were pushed off their foundations after floodwalls collapsed when Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005.
But the tours continued because the ordinance was loosely enforced until recently, when some residents complained the buses were blocking streets and damaging roads. Residents also said they were weary of being gawked-at by visitors interested in the rebuilding.
Councilman Ernest Charbonnet said when he took office this past summer he found the tour buses were among residents' biggest complaints. He said money generated from the new fees and any fines would pay for grass-cutting in the neighborhood, where blocks are overgrown with weeds.
"I have to pay it, because I have to be able to compete," said David Lee Ducote, owner of Southern Style Tours, who nixed the Lower 9th Ward from his tours when one of his buses was ticketed for being there in August. He says he considered not resuming service to the neighborhood if he had to pay to do so, but he feels he has no choice.
"If I don't pay it, I lose business," he said. "I'm a small business, and I feel like I'm being shaken down. New Orleans is hurting small businesses with all these added permits and fees. What's next? Charging to drive down Bourbon Street?"