Should urbanists be nervous about Vince Gray? Part 4: What the heck happened with the streetcars?
Chairman Vincent Gray is adamant: he supports streetcars. He's always supported streetcars. He never stopped supporting streetcars. He has been to Portland twice to learn about how the streetcars work.
If that's true, then what happened on May 26 at 2:00 am?
Gray has come about as close as a good boss ever does to pointing the finger at a subordinate. In particular, capital budget director Sarah Campbell, who was worrying streetcar supporters for weeks leading up to the decision.
They feared that Campbell, a member of the Committee of 100, was making the Committee's arguments about "insufficient planning" in meetings with Gray, and while Gray had told fellow Councilmembers and administration officials he supported keeping the streetcar program, that Campbell would successfully incorporate changes in the capital budget.
It also made for a good narrative: "Gray cuts streetcars in the dead of night!" However, budgets often get finalized in the middle of the night at the last minute. And, as Gray pointed out in our coversation, the capital budget is often the last to be resolved. On many of the specifics, any leader relies on staff.
Gray doesn't name Campbell, of course, but calls the streetcar scare a "staff error," and it's obivious which staff. Gray had been hearing for some time the streetcar concern trolls' arguments: the plans aren't done, it doesn't have a beginning or an end, the power systems aren't decided. More importantly, he says he was persuaded in the late-night round of budget changes that the funds for implementation could be delayed a year, with planning still funded, to work out all the outstanding questions.
If you listen to Gray's speech and his exchange with Tommy Wells that morning, it's clear Gray believed this. When Tommy Wells told him that the cuts would imperil the project and federal funds (the Urban Circulator grant which we subsequently didn't receive), Gray replied that they would make any "technical amendments" necessary to keep that from happening.
Wells and other supporters saw continuing funding for the whole project as the necessary element. DC's commitment of local funds for its first phase would, they felt, give the District a leg up in the grants. Between those arguments and the massive public outcry, Gray came to agree and amended the budget to restore the funding.
In our conversation, Gray said that he is ultimately responsible for all decisions that come from his office, and takes responsibility for this one. He should have been more aware of the consequences of this budget change. But nobody can seriously argue Gray isn't knowledgeable about the budget. He's far more knowledgeable than Adrian Fenty; even Fenty himself admits that, saying he focuses on the big picture and leaves details to his staff.
Which brings us to the real question urbanists should be asking in this race. The decision isn't between Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, since quite honestly, Gray and Fenty both share most elements of a policy agenda, from education reform to Smart Growth and a streetcar network. The key decision is between the Fenty cabinet and the potential Gray cabinet. Who will have better top people?
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