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Posts about Barbara Lang


Gray budget generally good for transportation

Mayor Gray released his proposed budget on Friday. It makes deep cuts in many areas, especially social services, but makes some exciting investments in transit funding, especially a big commitment to the streetcar program.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Besides a capital investment in streetcars, the budget maintains Circulator funding and gives WMATA a small increase, but not enough to stave off Metro service cuts. Off-street parking taxes raise general revenue and will also create incentives for employers to stop subsidizing parking.

Streetcars. The budget contains $99 million from now until 2017 to make a substantial start on the District's streetcar system. DOT is also hoping to get some federal match and private sector funding from property owners and businesses who would benefit, to magnify the effect of this money.

Which lines will get built will depend on many factors, but DDOT's transit head Scott Kubly said they are hoping to advance lines through Anacostia, over the 11th Street bridge and over to the Southwest Waterfront, and also to extend the H Street/Benning Road on both ends to Benning Road Metro in Ward 7 and K Street downtown.

Circulator. There's $12 million in Circulator funding. Kubly believes that's enough to extend the Union Station-Navy Yard line across the South Capitol Street bridge to Anacostia, Skyland and the Giant shopping center.

DDOT has already canceled the Mall route and plans to suspend the Convention Center-Waterfront one. It will also go ahead with plans to expand hours on Union Station-Navy Yard, reroute that line to pick up on Columbus Circle and take a more direct route along 2nd Street, add ADA features to the buses, and the other immediate steps in the plan.

Metro. There's a $6.2 million more for WMATA, which the budget document claims is a 4.7% increase. That just happens to be exactly the same percentage as the Maryland draft budget.

WMATA had asked for a $32.6 million increase to avoid any service cuts. Had the DC budget included a bigger increase than Maryland's, and given that Virginia counties are likely to offer more, it would put pressure on Maryland to do better. Instead, DC seems to be giving tacit agreement that 4.7% is what Metro will get.

Without more, Metro will be forced to increase rail headways and cut buses. While there may be a few bus cuts that make sense, this will surely go farther. We managed to avoid service cuts to transit for two tough years; it would be too bad to lose vital service that people of all incomes depend upon just as an economic recovery seems within reach.

However, I'm not sure this is actually a 4.7% increase. It seems that they only increased the local bus contribution by 4.7%, not the overall subsidy. A 4.7% increase across the board should be $11.6 million, not 6.2.

It's a little bit tricky to tell in this budget. Gray's budget staff have made a strong commitment to transparency in this budget, after being frustrated by some very opaque Fenty budgets. In transportation, however, two things are going on simultaneously that make it hard to follow.

First, they are moving a lot of money from one section to another, like transferring the WMATA subsidy into its own section, moving money between capital and operating, and more. Second, some budget areas are increasing and decreasing. As a result, there are large areas that go from zero to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and others that move in reverse. That makes it difficult to follow which functions within DDOT will end up with more budget and more staff, and which with less.

Capital Bikeshare. The budget calls for accepting advertising on Capital Bikeshare stations, for total revenue of about $500,000 a year.

The money will go into the general fund. That's helpful to close a big budget gap and avoid even deeper cuts to important social services. However, many had hoped the money could go toward expansion and making Capital Bikeshare self-sustaining.

There's an argument that advertising revenue from city programs that can earn some revenue should also help contribute to other functions that can't, like education, public safety or social programs. There's also a strong argument for creating programs which can run like businesses, earn their own money and spend it to grow themselves and also add value for residents.

Off-street parking tax. The tax on parking garage spaces would rise from 12% to 18%. Most of this will actually come from parking operators' profits rather than drivers, according to people familiar with the parking industry. That's because the overall demand for parking governs the rates right now, rather than the costs of the garages and operations.

Nevertheless, Barbara Lang, head of the DC Chamber of Commerce and author of the atrocious transition report about getting commuters in and out of DC, hates the plan. She said that "people that are going to be impacted are people like me who provide parking for their employees."

That sounds like an added benefit to this plan, not a drawback. Not only does DC raise some revenue but the organizations which are most distorting the transportation market get an incentive to stop. People who pay each day to park already are shelling out for parking. They know it's not free. They are making an economic choice between driving and other modes, and some have few alternatives.

But when Lang or another employer provides free parking but doesn't provide free SmartBenefits, the employee isn't choosing between the cost of Metro and the cost of driving. They're choosing between paying the cost of Metro themselves or having their employer pay for the parking. That's a huge incentive to drive even if transit is a great alternative.

In addition to raising the parking tax, DC should also finally get around to closing the free-parking loophole with the "Clean Air Compliance Fee," which would also charge a similar rate to employers who own their own garages and therefore don't pay a parking company for spaces. Barbara Lang hates that, idea, too. That could be another sign that it's another great public policy.

Other taxes. Another measure institutes "combined reporting," which ensures multi-state businesses pay a share of their taxes to DC instead of sheltering it in other states. This is a sensible measure and somewhat overdue.

Finally, the budget contains a tax increase on incomes over $200,000. I've endorsed a tax on high income earners before. Several councilmembers, including Kwame Brown and Jack Evans, and several candidates for the at-large seat have already come out against the budget on those grounds. It'd be interesting to see if they can find an alternative to the $35 million this will raise.

Already, this budget does hit the poor fairly hard, including cuts to affordable housing and homeless services. Some of this could end up costing DC more in the long run, like homeless people who might end up in emergency rooms far more often as a result.

In upcoming articles, we'll look at some other potential revenue sources and other elements of the budget.

This article originally said the Convention Center-Waterfront Circulator had already been canceled. DDOT is proposing to suspend it but has not yet done so.


Lang/Trachtenberg economic development transition pushes archaic transportation approach

I'm working on analyzing the transportation claims in Mayor Gray's transportation transition document. Meanwhile, the economic development document contains some terrible transportation policy recommendations that need no further research.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

That transition team, headed by Chamber of Commerce head Barbara Lang and former GW president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, recommends that DC focus its transportation policy on making it easier for people to drive in and out of the District in order to bring in more jobs.

The transportation section, starting at the bottom of page 6, suggests retiming signals primarily around moving cars in and out, adding reversible lanes, and paying for traffic officers to direct traffic on major routes to Maryland and Virginia. These all represent the wrong approach. Basically, this is a traffic plan that comes from people who don't know much about transportation.

The following words appear nowhere in the document: Metro, bus, transit, bicycle, walk, carpool. There is one sensible recommendation, to better enforce no parking and double parking rules.

Roads in and out and downtown are already very busy, despite a century of public policy around moving vehicles in and out. Parking is scarce and expensive. To grow, DC doesn't need to move more vehicles. It needs to find ways to transport more people without adding more vehicles.

Bus and HOV lanes, for example, would let the same number of vehicles carry more people and provide faster ways in and out of DC for transit riders and sluggers. It would also do so without making dangerous roads, like Connecticut Avenue, even more dangerous for pedestrians.

It's also odd that this transition team thinks that the best way to bring jobs to DC is to move more suburban residents in and out in single passenger vehicles. Maryland and Virginia residents don't pay taxes to DC, and most of the jobs in the District now are government or nonprofit jobs that don't pay taxes either. Why should DC prioritize continuing this status quo?

DC needs more jobs in technology and other intellectual, "creative class" sectors which will attract people who want to live near their jobs. It also needs more jobs which can employ those who live in DC today but haven't been able to find jobs. This plan helps with neither.

This isn't such a surprise from Barbara Lang. She testified at a Council hearing in 2008 that it's not safe for her female employees to take Metro because they occasionally work until 10 or 11 at night. She also didn't know if she provides any SmartBenefits to employees.

It's too bad the DC Chamber of Commerce is instead acting like the Maryland and Virginia Chamber of Commerce. DC needs a business community that believes in the city and in growing the city's strengths, including its relatively low car dependence. The Chamber of Commerce needs a leader who recognizes that, and in the meantime, Gray should put little stock in Lang's ideas fresh from the 1950s.


"Hanging on to the last vestiges of a car-based economy"

DC Councilmembers Jim Graham, Tommy Wells, and Phil Mendelson had sharp questions for representatives of numerous industry groups at yesterday's hearing on the parking tax loophole.

Photo by Curtis Perry on Flickr.

Clearly coordinated in advance, industry reps from the hotels, universities, hospitals, building owners, Pepco, and even nursing homes and Covenant House (always good to pull the heartstrings with those) got up to say that this "was a tax, not a fee", and would have "unintended consequences" because their poor working-class workers rely on this "important benefit" of free parking.

"I think this is the wrong benefit," argued Mendelson. Wells asked whether the testifying industries also provided entirely free health care to their workers in addition to the entirely free parking. And what about MetroChek/SmartBenefits? "You subsidize people to drive into the District of Columbia," said Wells. "I think you have an obligation to also subsidize people to take mass transit."

Barbara Lang of the DC Chamber of Commerce wasn't even sure if she provides SmartBenefits to her employees, first testifying that she doesn't, then correcting herself after the hearing. But SmartBenefits usually only means the employee pays for the transit pre-tax, with no cost to the employer (they actually get a tax benefit); she doesn't provide completely free transit passes as an alternative option to completely free parking.

For that matter, Lang doesn't even believe her employees would want to take transit. Her staff often attend evening functions, working as late as 10 or 11 in the evening, and many are female; it's not safe for them to be taking Metro. (Lang apparently never takes the often-overcrowded Metro in the late evening, perhaps because she has free parking).

"You have to challenge yourselves," Wells said. "Are you hanging on to the last vestiges of a car-based economy?" He pointed out the excess capacity on the east side of Metro (like the Orange and Blue Lines east of Capitol Hill), the "steady stream of cars" driving through neighborhoods, and even held up his copy of Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking.

The most ironic part? It turns out that Lang's Chamber of Commerce pays $200/month per space to their garage to subsidize employee parking. That means she's already paying the existing tax right now, and this bill wouldn't apply. In fact, as Graham pointed out several times in the hearing, the industry groups fighting this proposal so strongly didn't even know how many of their members would be affected, how many free parking spaces there are, or which employees receive them.

Many industry groups stressed their commitment to the environment, through green roofs, emissions reduction programs, and more. The hospitals, of course, especially stressed their support for reducing air pollution and asthma. But their environmentalism and public health interest stops at the parking lot's edge.

Cheryl Cort from the Coalition for Smarter Growth wrapped up the discussion with some concrete suggestions to improve the bill. She recommended applying this only to downtown and to large parking facilities (over 100 spaces) outside. Downtown has the clearest opportunity for reselling the spaces if employees stop receiving them for free, and the richest transit alternatives.

We should also require office buildings to stop bundling parking in leases. When the spaces aren't bundled, if the employer pays for free parking (as Lang does) they are renting the spaces directly and already paying the existing tax. But when spaces are bundled, they don't because we don't know the value of the spaces.

Knowing the value of spaces has additional benefits. Once spaces have a clear market value, it's easier to create parking cash-out programs that let employers give employees the $200/month in lieu of a parking space. In transit-poor LA, 20% of employees chose that option when given the choice. Employees could use the money to pay for transit, rent the occasional Zipcar or take the occasional taxi, or even better afford a home nearer transit or within walking distance of work.

In the short run, cash-outs could mean more parking spaces downtown available for short-term shoppers; today, many garages are full during the day and only allow monthly parkers. In the longer term, we wouldn't need to build so much parking; Howard University, for example, could then redevelop some of their many surface parking lots into more productive uses.

This was not a formal hearing on a bill. The Council actually passed the same bill with no opposition in 1994, but suburban Congresspeople forced DC not to implement the law; in 2003, Mendelson and Graham proposed the same bill, which received no opposition then either. Due to the opposition raised today, Graham decided to hold a "public roundtable" to solicit input, which will lead to a new bill and an official hearing in the fall.

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