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Tommy Wells gets transportation chair, WMATA Board

Tommy Wells was awarded oversight over the Committee on Public Works and Transportation in the DC Council today, and also chosen as the DC voting member on the WMATA Board of Directors.

Wells campaigning with Brown. Photo by hcwoodward on Flickr.

This represents an innovative move by Kwame Brown to demonstrate that he wants progressive action as opposed to the status quo in the coming year. Tommy Wells is the Councilmember most interested in bringing modern transportation practices to DC, including complete streets that balance the needs of drivers, walkers, bikers and transit riders.

While Wells' policies are sometimes seen as very pioneering, Dr. Gridlock's comments about Gabe Klein apply equally to Wells: "There's nothing radical in the bike lanes program, or the streetcar program or the street-parking program, or the pedestrian safety program. What looked to us here like cutting-edge programs would seem like catch-up to people in other big cities."

With the DDOT unified fund dismantled, the Council will play a larger role in reviewing and setting priorities for DDOT. That means the transportation committee will have a strong hand in either pushing DDOT to continue its innovative progress or to stall it, and Wells is the best one to keep things moving.

Councilmembers Jim Graham, Mary Cheh, and Harry Thomas, Jr. will be the other members of the committee. The committee's jurisdiction will not change, except Graham will keep his oversight over alcoholic beverage licensing along with taking over Human Services from Wells.

As chair, Jim Graham did a lot of good work while also being the focus of much controversy. Created a fund for local money to go to pedestrian and bicycle improvements, and moved the Sidewalk Assurance Act through the Council. He passed performance parking legislation, and has been forceful about real enforcement of parking laws. And he personally answers nearly every constituent email that he receives.

Graham also fought hard for DC's interests on a WMATA Board where DC often feels at a disadvantage compared to the suburban interests. (Disclosure: He also appointed me to the Riders' Advisory Council.) His transportation policy staffer, Jonathon Kass, is one of the best in the Council and very progressive. I hope Wells hires Kass without delay for the new committee.

On the other hand, some of Graham's tougher negotiating tactics like using the jurisdictional veto to block even holding a public hearing on certain fare proposals garnered significant criticism from myself and others. He was often seen as favoring transit in Ward 1 over elsewhere in the city, though as the densest ward and one with a low rate of car ownership, the transit brought many benefits.

The announcement did not specify whether Michael Brown will continue as the alternate on the WMATA Board, or whether a different person will take that over. Michael Brown had the worst attendance of all Board members from January to August of this year, but he could be a fine member if he were interested in starting to participate actively.

There could be some benefit for human services advocates to have Jim Graham take over: Graham is very good at fighting for the budget for areas he oversees, and facing deep cuts, human services could use his skill in that area.

On a more disappointing note, Harry Thomas, Jr., DC's biggest cheerleader for unwalkable big box development, will take over the Committee on Economic Development. Councilmembers Yvette Alexander, Marion Barry, and Jack Evans will round out the committee, which doesn't bode well to create pressure for better or more walkable development.

The full list of committee chairs:

  • Aging and Community Affairs: Marion Barry (previously Yvette Alexander)
  • Economic Development: Harry Thomas, Jr. (previously Kwame Brown)
  • Finance and Revenue: Jack Evans
  • Government Operations and the Environment: Mary Cheh
  • Health: David Catania
  • Housing and Workforce Development: Michael Brown
  • Human Services: Jim Graham (previously Tommy Wells)
  • Libraries, Parks and Recreation: Muriel Bowser (previously Harry Thomas, Jr.)
  • Public Safety and the Judiciary: Phil Mendelson
  • Public Services and Consumer Affairs: Yvette Alexander (previously Muriel Bowser)
  • Public Works and Transportation: Tommy Wells (previously Jim Graham)
David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Good news about Wells there. I'm looking forward to his presence of the WMATA board.

Regarding the Dr. Gridlock quote, how many US cities would consider what DC is doing regarding bike lanes, streetcars, street parking, or the pedestrian safety, playing catch up? Three?

by Steven Yates on Dec 22, 2010 4:05 pm • linkreport

NYC, SF, Portland, LA, Chicago to start.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 22, 2010 4:12 pm • linkreport

LA surprises me from that list (I've never thought that they were that progressive when it came to transportation). But I don't think that many more cities can be added to that list.

by Steven Yates on Dec 22, 2010 4:15 pm • linkreport

@Steven. Given where LA Currently stands, any improvements are fairly likely to be extremely progressive by comparison.

by andrew on Dec 22, 2010 4:18 pm • linkreport

Fair enough, but I guess my interpretation would be someone visiting from LA and seeing what DC is doing and thinking that "Wow, DC is just now doing this? How quaint." From that perspective, I don't think I'd put LA on the list.

by Steven Yates on Dec 22, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

"Harry Thomas, Jr., DC's biggest cheerleader for unwalkable and nondiscriminating big box development..."

That's a pretty strong condemnation. Could you provide a couple examples?

by Randall M. on Dec 22, 2010 4:28 pm • linkreport

The sound you are hearing the collective screams of the C-100. Of course, putting Wal-Mart Thomas on EcDev means they may have to choice but to start working with the smart growth folks top block the crazy projects that will be coming in.

by John on Dec 22, 2010 4:33 pm • linkreport

Oddly enough Salt Lake City could be added.

by Rj on Dec 22, 2010 5:14 pm • linkreport

You know, I really need to Preview before posting.

by John on Dec 22, 2010 5:21 pm • linkreport

If traditional holds, all of Graham's staff will follow him to his new committee.

by Fritz on Dec 22, 2010 6:09 pm • linkreport

@Fritz, that is tradition, but Jonathon Kass is a professional transportation planner by training. He'd be wasted and bored on Human Services; if Wells doesn't figure a way to take him -- and I understand they get along well -- I'm guessing he goes to DDOT, WMATA, or maybe USDOT.

by cminus on Dec 22, 2010 8:37 pm • linkreport

+ Seattle; not on transportation but livability/urban design, Charleston, SC; on zoning/smart codes, Miami

On Streetcars, Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, Tampa...

The point isn't that DC does better than lots of places, of course it does, it's just that DC shouldn't be satisfied to do a better job than say Des Moines, Iowa.

This came up in my blog once. Someone wrote something comparable to Steven Yates' point. I replied that it's our job as residents-advocates to advocate for the best DC. It also made me realize that on this dimension, relativity rules. E.g., I would read complaints on NYC blogs about things in NYC, and thing "it's so much better there than it is here" while failing to recognize that within your community "relativity" is actually "absolute" that you are only evaluating your own place and what you want it to be, based on what it is.

Another interesting question is that DC and Seattle engaged in streetcar planning starting at roughly the same time, 2003. Seattle's first streetcar line opened up in late 2007...

by Richard Layman on Dec 23, 2010 8:07 am • linkreport

@Richard The point isn't that DC does better than lots of places, of course it does, it's just that DC shouldn't be satisfied to do a better job than say Des Moines, Iowa.

You've hit the nail on the head. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people chuckle and say 'they're not really comparing us to Portland Ore of all places, are they? Don't they understand that Washington has a far higher bar to reach? That, for example, wires hanging in the streets in downtown Portland may be okay, but will never acceptable for Washington?'

by Lance on Dec 23, 2010 8:16 am • linkreport

As an at-large member Michael Brown doesn't have all the Ward specific issues to manage like Wells/Graham/etc yet he can't find the time to fulfill his duty to the WMATA board and attend meetings regularly? Unacceptable. We need more accountability from our CMs.

by Paul S on Dec 23, 2010 8:30 am • linkreport

@cminus: That's not how the Council's committee system generally works. Committee staff are essentially an outgrowth of the chairperson's office staff. Hence why you see committee staff at election- and ward-related events. Kass won't move to Wells unless Graham allows it (since he is on Graham's payroll), and then will demand something from Wells in return. The way the Council committee system works is incredibly inefficient since staff develop expertise and then in a reshuffling, are then off to another committee.

by Fritz on Dec 23, 2010 8:53 am • linkreport

Fritz: Knowing who cminus is, I'll just say he definitely knows how this stuff works much better than anyone else commenting here.

by David Alpert on Dec 23, 2010 9:09 am • linkreport

@David: Thanks for the endorsement. ;) But Fritz's account is basically right, in most cases. It's not so much that Councilmembers can veto or demand compensation for another member's hiring decisions -- nothing stops a staffer from quitting one office so they can be hired by another -- but that the Councilmembers are unwilling to poach from each other's staff for reasons of comity and to avoid risking any split loyalties. So it's certainly rare that someone switches from one office to another.

But while it's unusual, it's hardly unheard-of either, and it might be nice if one of the exceptions happened in this case. Wells already has a capable transportation and smart growth advisor in Anne Phelps, but if I were staffing that committee I'd consider having two people just to tackle DDOT and WMATA, depending on my budget.

by cminus on Dec 23, 2010 10:15 am • linkreport

@cminus: Agreed. Also, Anne Phelps, who is indeed terrific, is only part time, and she handles a lot of non-transportation H Street neighborhood stuff. So having 1½ staffers on DDOT/WMATA would probably be ideal.

by David Alpert on Dec 23, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

@David A: Thanks for the pat on the head, but I'm pretty familiar with how the Council system works as well.

@cminus: I'm trying to think of any other former Graham staffer who left to work for another CM, and I'm drawing a blank. Graham's not too keen on that sort of thing and he's known for holding very long grudges.

Also, the committee budget is, I believe $350k per committee. I don't know if Wells would be able to hire any additional staff within that limit (assuming all his Human Services committee people come over with him to PW&T).

Appleseed had done a report years ago about how to make the Council better, and one of its' biggest beefs was with how the committees are staffed and how they flip around so much, thereby eliminating any institutional knowledge and consistency. Appleseed recommended permanent professional staff that couldn't be used as extensions of the committee chair's personal office. The Council promptly ignored that recommendation.

The best Council committees are those that haven't switched staff in quite some time, mainly Evans and Catania. Unfortunately, they're the exception to the general rule.

by Fritz on Dec 23, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

@Fritz: Around the time Graham moved from Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to what was then Public Works and the Environment, one of his committee staffers left to work for Kwame Brown on the Economic Development committee instead. That's the only one I know of, which fits with this sort of thing being unusual but not incredible.

one of its' biggest beefs was with how the committees are staffed and how they flip around so much, thereby eliminating any institutional knowledge and consistency


by cminus on Dec 23, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

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