Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Vincent Gray

Politics


The DC council will stay somewhat colorful... literally

Views, backgrounds, and many other factors are important qualities for candidates for office. One that doesn't matter at all: Whether their names are also colors of the rainbow. But it's fun nonetheless to chart how many of DC's elected officials share surnames with parts of the palette.

Orange was the first hue to join the council, as the Ward 5 member in 1999. He left to run for mayor (and lost), but when returned to the council after winning a special election for an at-large seat in 2011. Then, the District reached an all-time high of four chromatic elected officials: Vincent Gray, mayor; Kwame Brown, chairman; and Michael Brown and Orange, at-large councilmembers.

As I noted in a similarly-frivolous post on this topic in 2011, the tally does not count foreign-language names; Carol Schwartz (who was an at-large member from 1985 to 2008) has a name that derives from "schwarz," the German word for black.

Now, with both Browns off the council (both having pled guilty to lawbreaking) and Gray having lost his seat as mayor (in large part because of a federal investigation), Orange would have been again the only official with an RGB formula... except he will have a partner: Elissa Silverman, who won the race to succeed David Catania.

There will also be a special election in 2015 for the Ward 4 member. A few people (whose last names are not colors) are already running, but most say it's far too early to speculate.

One who isn't yet running but might is Robert White, who just gained 7% of the vote in the race Silverman won. If you count first names, there's also Graylan Hagler.

The real vote should depend more on the candidates' views, and in reality will depend even more on whom Muriel Bowser endorses. But a White or Graylan victory would, as an unimportant side effect, again boost the council's chromaticity.

Transit


No, DC is not abandoning plans for most streetcar lines

If you read the headlines in the Post and WAMU today, you might come away thinking that the DC government has decided not to try to build a streetcar line on Georgia Avenue or from Anacostia to Buzzard Point. But that would be wrong.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

What's going on?

What happened yesterday is the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced three finalists for its contract to design, build, operate, and maintain streetcar lines. Earlier this year, DDOT had planned for that contract to encompass all of the 22-mile streetcar system: an east-west line from Benning Road to Georgetown, a north-south line from Southwest to Takoma or Silver Spring, and a line from Anacostia to Southwest.

To make that possible, the mayor's office had asked the DC Council to essentially set aside all of the money for the entire system right now.

While they insisted, vehemently, that they still support the streetcar system, the Council dedided they just weren't ready to give it all of the money today. Therefore, this current bidding process can only legally encompass the lines which are in the six-year capital plan—the east-west line and the part of the Anacostia line from Bolling to the foot of the 11th Street Bridge.

The news stories have, accurately, reported that the current funding only lets the system grow to about 8.2 miles. Unfortunately, some of them also gave them impression that DC has "cut" the program. It's going to happen slower, definitely, but that might not even be all bad.

It's not really a surprise the council didn't boost streetcar funding

Let's say you want to start a company and are going to venture capital investors. You put together a rough business plan and they give you some seed money to hire some people. Then a few years go by, during which time your prototype gets delayed and you don't talk to your customers. You then come back to investors asking for much more money, but your business plan still isn't more detailed despite your promises to flesh it out. Would the investors fund you?

Even with crazy money in tech sometimes, it would be pretty tough. And it's understandable that DC councilmembers balked at the mayor's funding request. They continued authorizing about $600 million at a time when the starter line on H Street has been delayed and officials have given vague or no answers to questions. The mayor was asking for a very large amount of extra money, and politically, it just didn't fly.

Since Terry Bellamy took over at the start of the Gray Administration and Carl Jackson came from Greenville, SC to run the transit programs, DDOT went mostly silent on the streetcar. There were a few required environmental study meetings, sure, but the agency basically stopped collaborating with groups like the Sierra Club or local BIDs, which it had done under Gabe Klein and Scott Kubly.

The mayor convened a task force chaired by City Administrator Allen Lew which included many business leaders. The business community was willing to talk about special taxing districts to help pay for the streetcar, but Lew ultimately decided not to even try a "value capture" system and instead just dedicated 25% of future new tax revenue to the streetcar.

At the same time, the government basically spent all of 2013 lying to the public about how the streetcar would open that year while everyone—at lower levels, anyway—knew it wouldn't. Promises that DC would lay out detailed plans for things like where streetcar storage and maintenance yards would go went unfulfilled and questions about how it would work without overhead wires across the Mall and key viewsheds remain unanswered and unstudied (but studies are now beginning).

So, four years has gone by since the height of streetcar enthusiasm. In all that time, few detailed emerged, promises were repeatedly broken, and ties with allies atrophied.

The council said, give us a plan

Many councilmembers said, publicly and privately, that they still want to see the entire streetcar system built. The two leading mayoral candidates support the plan at least to a significant degree; both point to failures and mistakes along the way, which indeed happened.

But councilmembers, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, and also people in the budget office, say they just want more detailed plans. They want DDOT to do more legwork and answer more questions before they'll hand over a blank check. I don't entirely blame them.

Unfortunately, some in the Gray administration responded to the cuts by essentially saying, "okay, you didn't give us the money, so that's it for most of the lines." That's misleading. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the transportation committee, told the Post that the Gray team is being "childish" and not working with others. "You don't take your marbles and go home," Cheh said.

Sure, the cuts make things harder. Sometimes transportation projects can be a chicken-and-egg situation where you can't know every single thing up front. The plans for the Metrorail system shifted between when construction started and when it ended (delaying the Green Line by years), for example. "Design-build" can be a more economical and faster way to get transportation projects built, but it also involves hiring your contractor before you have every detail laid out perfectly.

People who are more skeptical of the streetcar, like Phil Mendelson, are less tolerant of gaps in the plan which can get filled in during the design-build process; they don't trust the team to fill the gaps well. Planning everything and then building it is slower and more expensive, and it becomes even more expensive when you go back and make changes along the way.

We can't know every single detail now. DDOT and its contractor partners will learn from the mistakes of H Street as well as the (hopefully smaller) ones that come in the early stages of lines still scheduled to be built. The same thing happens with the road network, Metro, bike lanes, and any other large transportation facility.

Still, there also needs to be a role for the public in correcting the course along the way. Under Terry Bellamy, DDOT did not show a willingness to meaningfully involve others in streetcar discussions, which compounded mistakes. We do need to see how H Street works and then ask questions about how to do better on the next lines. We need to get answers, too.

Make it work now

The streetcar program will be good for DC. In some corridors, it will add capacity. It will drive higher transit ridership and connect communities. In some places, it will help kick-start economic development as well. It will have some bugs and then they will get worked out.

The most important thing is to build the full east-west line, and build it to its great potential. It's already definitely going to have dedicated lanes on K Street, which will make it avoid the worst of the traffic. It also needs lanes, signal priority, and other features around Georgetown, Mount Vernon Square, and North Capitol Street to make it a speedy and attractive mode of travel. The streetcar needs to work well both operationally and for riders.

If it does, then public support for more lines will only grow, and the council will put money behind the rest of the lines. Already, Bellamy's successor Matt Brown and Sam Zimbabwe, who is handling Jackson's former duties, are steering the streetcar back toward the right track.

The lines are not "cut." They're just going to come later. It would have been a lot better if they could be built sooner, but with all of the mistakes during the Bellamy years, we lost that chance. It's not the last chance, though.

Development


A move to strengthen affordable housing runs into political obstacles

The Gray Administration has had a poor track record of building affordable housing when selling public land. Kenyan McDuffie is trying to set a higher bar, but Gray is trying to gut the bill by proposing a giant loophole that would render the bill virtually toothless. Will Muriel Bowser hold firm or let the loophole in?


Photo by Travis on Flickr.

What's this bill about?

When DC does a deal to develop public land, it's typically required that the project include affordable housing for low-income residents. Mayor Gray, however, has pushed for much less affordable housing than his predecessors Adrian Fenty or Anthony Williams did.

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) wants to enshrine a threshold into law. Under his bill, 20-30% of rental housing (more near transit, less elsewhere) would have to go to people making 30-50% of Area Median Income, or about $30,000-50,000 for a family of three. If the building is condos, they could go to people making 50-80% AMI or approximately $50-78,000 for a family of three.

Sometimes that level of affordability isn't feasible. If a piece of public land isn't worth so much, maybe nobody can afford to build there if they have to provide that much affordable housing. Accordingly, McDuffie's bill allows for DC's independent CFO to evaluate the deal and determine if there needs to be a waiver.

What is the loophole?

Gray, however, is proposing cutting out the CFO. The Gray administration wants the mayor's office to decide when there needs to be a waiver instead of involving the CFO.

But this means that the mayor could essentially ignore the law at will. And if he or she does that, the whole process will be a black box to the public, just like it is today, which is one of the main things the McDuffie bill fixes.

In current land deals, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development gets a number of proposals for developing a piece of public land, then picks one without explaining why. Often that decision goes against the wishes of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or other local leaders, and while officials shouldn't have to always go with the ANC's recommendation, it's often a big mystery why they chose something else.

We don't know if one of the proposals yielded more public money than another, or if the mayor's office thinks one's amenities are better than another's. And we don't know if and when the mayor is giving up affordable housing without good cause.

Deputy Mayor Jeffrey Miller says the requirement could lead to less affordable housing, rather than more, if the land value doesn't support the required housing. But this is why the CFO (or the Council, for that matter) can grant a waiver.

Miller also says the requirement could get in the way of providing other amenities like libraries or parks. But this is in some sense the whole point: DC needs to commit to actually building affordable housing. Other amenities are important, too, but if there isn't a way for lower-income residents to live in the neighborhood, then building other amenities only boosts the value of more expensive areas without addressing inequality.

Where's Muriel Bowser?

Bowser, who looks likely to become the next mayor, supported the bill in committee, but suddenly seems open to what she calls "administrative tweaks" to the bill. Advocates fear she is going to opt for this loophole big enough to swallow the whole bill.

Certainly, if she is mayor, she might prefer to have free rein. Gray sounded like he's pushing that idea when he said, "As a mayor, obviously, I would not be ecstatic about having legislation that ties the ability of the executive to function, as a general proposition ... I realize the huge importance of being able to have flexibility to get things done."

But the whole reason councilmembers are voting for this bill is because the mayor hasn't done what they think is necessary or appropriate. Bowser would only appreciate the value of a loophole if she's interested in exploiting it at times the CFO wouldn't let her. If she did that, she'd be breaking promises to create affordable housing.

There's no good reason for her to water down the bill. It would only send a message that maybe the public can't trust her commitments on affordable housing. Since she surely means to follow through on her promises, she should keep the loophole out.

Education


Shifting DC school boundaries promises real change

With education set to be a pivotal issue in the D.C. mayor's race, both of the leading candidates have rejected a plan to redraw school boundaries and feeder patterns. They argue that changing boundaries before improving school quality will drive middle-class families out of the system. But it may be that the best way to improve quality and retain middle-class families is to reassign students first.


Photo of change sign from Shutterstock.

There's only one neighborhood middle- and high-school feeder pattern that middle-class parents want: the Deal Middle School-Wilson High School one in Ward 3. Both schools are too crowded; other D.C. Public Schools are under-enrolled. The Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, which spent 10 months formulating its recommendations, has tried to correct that imbalance by shrinking the Deal and Wilson boundaries.

Not surprisingly, many families who have been cut out of those boundaries are up in arms. It was easy for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to endorse the reassignment plan after he lost his bid for reelection. It's not as easy for those running for his seat.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in The Washington Post.

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Education


Carol Schwartz bids to become the education mayor

Carol Schwartz has produced a detailed, thoughtful platform on a key issue in the DC mayoral race, education. It's unlikely to be enough to propel her long-shot campaign to victory, but right now her position is the one most likely to ensure stability in DC Public Schools.


Photo by David on Flickr.

Schwartz, a former at-large DC Councilmember, has some good ideas about things like lessening the focus on standardized tests and retaining veteran teachers. Her 15-page white paper is a far more comprehensive document than anything produced by either of the other candidates, and her positions align better with those of DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Schwartz also has more education experience than her rivals, Councilmembers Muriel Bowser and David Catania. She first came to DC to teach special education, inspired by the experience of caring for her intellectually disabled brother. She went on to serve two terms on the now-defunct Board of Education, which governed DC's public schools (not to be confused with the current State Board of Education, which does not). And her three children all attended DCPS.

Schwartz's stances on hot-button issues like school boundaries and charter school growth suggest that a Mayor Schwartz would have a better chance of retaining the current DCPS Chancellor than either a Mayor Catania or a Mayor Bowser.

How important is that? It's true that the pace of progress under Henderson has been slow. And some DCPS policies, like the system for evaluating teachers, could certainly be improved. But it will be unfortunate if the mayoral election results in Henderson's departure.

Henderson is a smart and competent administrator who has demonstrated an admirable willingness to try new initiatives, some of which may be on the verge of bearing fruit. It would be a shame if those processes were disrupted and the pace of change slowed further, or possibly even reversed.

With those considerations in mind, some DC education activists have thrown their support to Bowser rather than Catania, despite Catania's greater expertise on education. As chair of the DC Council's education committee, Catania has acquired a detailed knowledge of the public school landscape, and he's brimming with ideas about how to improve it. Bowser's strategy on education, on the other hand, has basically been to say as little about it as possible.

But Catania and Henderson have had a testy relationship, and he hasn't said whether he would keep her on. It's not clear she would stay under a Mayor Catania even if he wanted her to.

Bowser, on the other hand, has said she'd like Henderson to stay, and she's been generally complimentary about the Chancellor's performance.

Bowser's opposition to new boundaries

But Bowser's recent statements on the controversial boundary plan adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray may have soured that cordial relationship. Henderson supports the plan, and Bowser, like Catania, recently came out in opposition to it.

What's more, for some reason Bowser added that she didn't anticipate involving the DCPS chancellor in formulating a substitute proposal.

As Gray observed, that doesn't seem like a wise move. Henderson wasn't in charge of the recent boundary process, but she was certainly involved. And that seems only appropriate for a process involving the boundaries and feeder patterns of the system she heads.

Not only is the move unwise substantively, but Bowser's remark seems bound to alienate Henderson. While the Chancellor hasn't said anything publicly about these developments, it's possible she'll decide that Bowser isn't someone she actually wants to work under.

Schwartz, for her part, seems to have struck all the right notes for retaining Henderson. Schwartz commits to allowing her to stay on for "the time she has stated she wants, which is one or so more years." (Henderson has said she'd like to stay until 2017.) And in one of a series of veiled digs at Catania, Schwartz says she would not "micromanage" a chancellor but rather would "partner with" her "in setting policy and goals."

Schwartz on school boundaries and charters

On the crucial issue of school boundaries, Schwartz suggests a few tweaks, such as increasing the percentage of set-asides for out-of-boundary students to maintain diversity. But she says she accepts the need for change.

She also sides with Henderson on some issues that have emerged recently in the relationship between DCPS and the charter sector, such as joint planning between the sectors. While charter advocates are amenable to joint planning that is voluntary on their part, it's clear that Schwartz believes it would make sense to impose limits on such things as where new charter schools can open.

Charter advocates have resisted that as an infringement on their autonomy. But Henderson and others have argued, with some justification, that without those kinds of limits, charter expansion could easily undermine plans to improve DCPS schools.

Will any of this convince DC education reformers who want Henderson to stay on to switch their support from Bowser to Schwartz? Probably not, given the overwhelming odds against Schwartz. But perhaps they can urge Bowser to do whatever she can to mend the damage she may have done to her relationship with Henderson.

Beyond that, Bowser might want to flesh out her own skimpy education platform with some of the ideas that abound in Schwartz's white paper. Schwartz may never get a chance to implement those ideas herself, but it would be nice if someone did.

Education


Anxious about the new school boundaries? Here are some things to consider.

Last week DC Mayor Vincent Gray accepted the new school boundaries and feeder patterns proposed by the advisory committee that has been working on the issue for the past 10 months. While some residents have legitimate concerns about the change, it may not prove as bad as they fear.


Photo of chewed pencils from Shutterstock.

Even after the committee backed away from the more radical proposals it floated in April, the plan still managed to disgruntle many residents who found themselves rezoned to less desirable schools. The charter community is ticked off as well, angered by the committee's recommendation that charter schools with more affluent student bodies reserve 25% of their seats for "at-risk" students.

But Gray, immunized from popular disapproval by his lame-duck status, has taken a statesmanlike position. As he said in his letter to the committee, "there will never be a good time to make changes to our assignment policies." Unless, perhaps, you're about to leave office.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the next mayor will undo the whole thing. While neither of the leading candidates has weighed in specifically on the proposal Gray has adopted, both have said they would prefer to delay the boundary overhaul.

But undoing the plan may take some doing. One senior government official told WAMU's Martin Austermuhle that Gray's adoption of the proposal will set into motion a process that will be difficult to reverse. The official cited the fact that the school lottery scheduled to begin in December would have to be started over again when a new mayor takes office in January.

And the Post's Mike DeBonis has suggested that Gray has done his successor "a huge favor" by making a decision that is politically unpopular but necessary. It might be convenient for the next mayor to say that his or her hands are tied.

As DeBonis points out, the current system has led to overcrowding in some schools and underenrollment in others, while many students are assigned to multiple schools. And putting off the change until all DC's schools are "high-quality," as some have advocated, is likely to mean that changes in the assignment system would be held in abeyance for a decade if not longer.

At the same time, I can understand why parents may feel apprehensive, or even panicky, if their children have been reassigned, say, from Wilson High School to lower-performing Roosevelt, or from Eastern to lower-performing H.D. Woodson—or even from Wilson to Eastern.

Such reactions don't mean they're bigoted or racist. Parents want what's best for their children. And no one wants her child to be the only one, or one of a handful, of any category in a school.

No doubt some parents will depart the system for charter schools or other school systems in the region. But I hope they'll consider the following factors before making that decision—and that DCPS will do whatever it can to ensure that they do:

Nothing is happening right away. While the proposals are set to take effect a year from now, no student who is currently attending her neighborhood school will have to switch. And students in 3rd grade or above will be able to stay in the same feeder pattern—as can younger ones with older siblings in the pattern. So there's time for middle and high schools, the sources of the most concern, to improve.

Your new school may be better than you think. It might be worth a visit, and DC Public Schools should make it easy for parents to tour a prospective school and sit in on classes. The quality of a school isn't necessarily reflected in its test scores. I've seen some impressive teachers and motivated students in relatively "low-performing" DCPS schools.

You may be able to band together with other parents in the same situation. In some neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill, parents have pledged to send their children to the local public school and sometimes worked together to improve a school even before their kids enroll. DCPS and individual school administrators should do whatever they can to encourage such commitments and work with prospective parents.

Your child may be challenged academically even in a generally low-performing school. No parent wants his child to be held back by classmates who require a slower pace. But AP classes are currently offered in all neighborhood high schools, and Eastern has just begun offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma program.

Indeed, one of the advisory committee's recommendations is that all neighborhood high schools should "ensure that specialized and selective programs are developed and supported." But that won't be enough to ensure that more advanced students are challenged. Schools will also need to limit those selective programs to students who can actually handle advanced work.

Right now AP classes in DCPS high schools are open to all, and DCPS requires students to earn at least two credits in an AP or IB course in order to graduate. (Students can also fulfill that requirement with a Career and Technical Education course, but many don't.)

While some argue that lower-achieving students benefit from taking AP or other advanced classes even if they don't perform well in them, they would probably benefit just as much if not more from a truly rigorous class pitched at a level they're equipped to handle. And they'll almost certainly hold back the students in an advanced class who are better prepared.

Some may object to this kind of sorting by ability as "tracking," and perhaps it is. But if the alternative is socioeconomic segregation on a school-by-school basis, tracking doesn't seem so bad. And it may be the only way to keep higher-achieving students in the system.

While middle schools generally don't engage in as much tracking as high schools, technology is making it possible for learning to become more individualized there, enabling each student to move at her own pace. The same is true at the elementary level.

No doubt some parents will object that all of this is easy for me to say, since I don't have a school-age child who has been reassigned. They certainly have a point. I can only say: I hope that if I did, I would be willing to take my own advice.

Transit


What happened with the streetcar?

Last Tuesday, DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson announced, less than 24 hours before the only vote on DC's budget, that he was proposing slashing funding for the streetcar. The money would pay for, among other things, a package of tax cuts. What does this mean for the streetcar?


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

It's been difficult to answer that question, because Mayor Gray's budget office and the DC Council budget office don't agree. Especially on Tuesday and Wednesday, with little time to understand the change, dueling analyses clouded the picture. It's starting to come into focus, though questions still remain.

There is still funding to build streetcars at a slow pace. And DC could always fund more lines once a few lines get done. But the Gray administration says Mendelson's change may halt exactly the mechanism the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) hopes will get the project to move faster, stop having so many delays, and get out of the mire it's been in: a partnership with a consortium of companies to design, build, operate, and maintain the streetcar.

Does this affect the H Street streetcar?

It doesn't appear so. The first segment of the streetcar will run from behind Union Station, along H Street and Benning Road to Oklahoma Avenue, near the Anacostia River. That is under active construction and will open ... sometime. I'm hearing maybe the end of 2014. That's frustratingly long and disappointing since until the very end of last year Gray was promising it would open in 2013.

DDOT has already done studies to continue the line to the Minnesota Avenue Metro. According to information from Gray spokesperson Pedro Rebeiro, the budget still has funding that would pay for that segment.

What about the rest of the system?

The day of the budget vote, Rebeiro released this side-by-side comparison arguing that the cuts would leave DC about $100 million short of finishing the line from H Street west to K Street downtown and then to Georgetown.

It's worth noting that the K Street part would get a dedicated lane (for streetcars and buses). There has been a fair amount of criticism of streetcars that only run in mixed traffic for their whole length; this would not do that if the "K Street Transitway" gets built.

Why does the Council budget office say the money isn't necessary?

Chairman Phil Mendelson makes a few arguments, but two main ones. One is that the mayor was putting too much money into the streetcar than the budget could sustain. Gray's budget office wanted to basically look at the amount of revenue DC earned in Fiscal Year 2016 and then of whatever goes above that, into the future, one-quarter would go to the streetcar.

Council budget director Jen Budoff says that this is unsustainable, that a lot of that revenue growth is needed just to pay for rising costs in the base budget and within 5 years this financing system would get so big it would cut into the base budget. Gray's budget director Eric Goulet says Budoff is wrong.

Mendelson's second argument, which got a lot of traction with transportation chair Mary Cheh and at-large councilmember David Grosso, is that DDOT hasn't been spending money at nearly the rate this would bring in. It built up a surplus of about $100 million in accounts (or so says Budoff and Cheh's staff; Goulet says that's not real, while the council folks suspect the administration was just trying to hide it).

Mendelson dedicated about $50 million a year to the streetcar, which he argues is enough to keep the program moving forward.

If DDOT isn't spending money very fast, why does it need more now?

Because DDOT wasn't planning to keep on building streetcars the way it had been. Rather, it was going to drop da bomb. I mean, a DBOM—a Design, Build, Operate, and Maintain contract.

A number of transportation design, engineering, and construction firms have joined together in several consortia to bid for this contract. DDOT was going to soon narrow the field to about three. Those three would then start an intensive design process to actually work out how they would build the streetcar system on K Street, a north-south line along or near Georgia Avenue, and a line in Anacostia over the river to Buzzard Point where it would connect with the north-south line.

This would include key questions like how to run streetcars without overhead wires. The H Street line will have them and they're now legal outside of viewsheds, but there's no way wires were going to cross the Mall or North Capitol Street or pass by Farragut Square.

The consortia include streetcar makers who have their own wireless technologies, some with batteries, some with a third rail that only activates when the streetcar runs over it, and more.

But these consortia are going to have to sink millions of dollars into just working out the designs and all of the details. That's par for the course in big construction projects (and profits on the other end cover this risk), but they're not going to bid if they think DC might not hire anyone, or will build only a piece and then pull the plug because it doesn't have the money.

The Gray administration says that DC needs this dedicated revenue stream now to persuade bidders that the city is serious, and that they may have to withdraw or at least strongly curtail the DBOM bidding with the current budget. Mary Cheh, who says she doesn't want to see the DBOM go away, is asking whether that's absolutely necessary, or whether DC could still persuade the consortia to bid, then come up with the money once it's actually time to sign a contract.

But Gray argues that it's going to be very hard to come up with the $800 million over 5 years (for the initial 22-mile system) and more (for the rest of the streetcar vision) in the future. DC won't just repeal the tax cuts in a year. Mendelson has spent a lot of the rest of the money on other things, and DC's debt cap limits how much the city can borrow beyond what's in its capital budget.

Who's right?

Probably both are accurate, from the perspective of each side. It does seem that the full concept of hiring a consortium and turning them loose to build a citywide streetcar network is now less likely, or if it does happen, might be smaller in scope. However, not everyone on the council, even those who support building a streetcar system, is entirely comfortable signing off on that just yet.

Mendelson's idea, and that of the Committee of 100, is that DC needs to first plan everything out in great detail, then have public input on the plans, then get council approval, and then it can get funded. This is a common way of doing government projects.

In business, especially in technology, organizations are moving away from this way of doing things. That's because often it takes so long to design things that it delays a project, and once you actually start building, you learn more about what you need. Companies and governments are notoriously bad at figuring out all of the issues beforehand—this was one big factor in the Healthcare.gov fisasco.

Ken Archer epxlained in detail why a design-build process can work better for governments as well as private industry. But it can cut the public and elected officials out of the process somewhat. If the agency is good about getting input along the way, and we can believe they will make good choices as the project proceeds, it can be a big time-saver.

Unfortunately, DDOT has not established this level of credibility in recent years. Far from it. And that meant public understanding was shallow and support was thin, so when Mendelson wanted to take it away and offered something (tax cuts) which had broad appeal, most didn't put up a fight.

Budget


Mendelson plans to slash streetcar funding, pay for tax cuts

In his proposal for the DC budget, council chairman Phil Mendelson will propose lowering the streetcar's capital funding from what Mayor Gray has proposed. Mendelson will fund other streetcar-related projects like a new bridge near Union Station, while much of the decrease will fund a package of tax cuts.


Photo by Rena Tom on Flickr.

In a phone conversation, Mendelson said the change will devote about $400 million for the streetcar over five years. The mayor's proposal dedicates about $800 million over five years, rising to $3 billion over ten years.

Mayor Gray's budget director, Eric Goulet, says this is not nearly enough to build the streetcar system as planned, and the change would effectively halt the streetcar program. Mendelson disagrees, and says that he'd like to see a clearer plan from DDOT about how it will spend the money before approving it.

Gray had proposed a system where as DC's revenue increases, 25% of that increase beyond the projected level for 2015 would go into the streetcar. This would ensure the streetcar has an ongoing pool of money, and since the streetcar will supposedly generate economic growth, it can capture some of that benefit.

Mendelson's proposal would change the formula so that it's only 25% of the gain in any specific year. In other words, if revenue rises from 2015 to 2018, Gray's proposal would dedicate a quarter of the difference from 2015 to 2018 to the streetcar, while the Mendelson proposal would instead use a quarter of the difference just from 2017 to 2018.

Councilmember David Grosso, who agrees with Mendelson's plan, emphasized that he does not want to see the streetcar program wither, but he also doesn't think it needs the quantities of money that Gray wants to dedicate. He said there is a $100 million surplus in the streetcar account; therefore, there isn't a need for more. "It's been proven that they aren't spending the money," he said. "You should budget according to what you can actually accomplish and get it done right."

The mayor has disputed the $100 million number as well. That number came from calculations by staff for Mary Cheh, who chairs the transportation committee. But in a letter to the council yesterday, Mayor Gray called this an "incorrect financial analysis"; Gray's budget staff have described it in more colorful terms.

"It's just not sustainable," said Mendelson. Council budget director Jennifer Budoff explained that while the city's revenue increases by about $200 million a year (of which $50 million would go to streetcar under Mayor Gray's plan) the city's budget also increases, often by more than $200 million a year, due to rising costs. Therefore, she said, the streetcar allocation would eat into the base budget after about five years.

Some of the money will go to pay for a new Hopscotch Bridge, the bridge over the railroad tracks north of Union Station which the streetcar will use. That bridge has to be replaced before the line can extend to downtown and Georgetown, and needs about $200 million.

The cuts will also fund a series of tax breaks which will $165 million a year. These are some of the proposals from the Tax Revision Commission which former mayor Tony Williams chaired. Mendelson's budget proposal leaves out a few proposals from that commission, such as a "local services fee" that would charge all DC employers a flat rate per employee (seemingly a backdoor way of getting some revenue from companies that employ out-of-state workers who don't pay any income taxes) and an increase in the sales tax.

The tax breaks will phase in over 5 years. They include a new middle tax bracket for people making $40-60,000 of 7%, then dropping to 6.5%; making single people eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit; a higher standard deduction; a cut to 8.75% for people making $350,000-$1 million (but not those making more); a cut in the business franchise tax; and a higher estate tax exemption that would rise from the current $1 million up to $2 million and later to the federal level of $5.25 million.

The sales tax would still broaden to more businesses, like health clubs and yoga studios, a proposal that these businesses fought heavily in recent years.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which supports a more progressive tax code, supports most of these changes and notes that cuts for low and middle income families, which will cost $123 million, make up about three-quarters of the $165 million tax cut package.

The business tax cut costs $40 million a year, and the estate tax cut will make DC lose out on about $14 million a year from deceased residents.

Cheh said her staff have not been able to look at the proposal, which won't be released to councilmembers until 5 pm today; she only has spoken to Mendelson verbally about the plans thus far and has not formulated a position on the proposal. She emphasized that, if the cuts go through, she will work to ensure the streetcar gets enough money to continue building, and recognizes that a project like this can build up momentum which could be lost if there are too many budget hurdles.

I will update this story as it develops.

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