Posts about Budget
Starting this fall, students in DC will get to ride Metrobus for free, thanks to a budget surplus. It's good news for kids who take the bus to school. WMATA could take advantage of this opportunity and simplify its system for student fares as well.
Metro already offers a discounted fare for students, but it's hard to take advantage of it. In order to make our family eligible for student fares, my husband had to obtain the proper forms from our children's schools. One school had no idea what we were talking about.
Then, he had to take them in person to one of 4 Metro sales offices or WMATA headquarters, which are inconvenient to reach and only open on weekdays during business hours. Each form allowed us to purchase a bag of 10 tokens for $7.50. We have to transfer buses to get to school, so we would save 10¢ per trip, not accounting for the initial ride to the sales office.
Students can also get a monthly SmartStudent pass for $30, but only after they obtain a Student Travel Card from the District Department of Transportation. You can get it at the sales office or 8 DCPS schools, if a student goes there. But unless you use it roundtrip nearly every school day, it's more expensive than tokens.
We don't yet know how Metro or the DC Council will implement the fare change. I vote for simply allowing younger students to board the bus for free, while letting those who are older use their student ID. Of course, it probably won't be that easy.
A good option won't involve schlepping down to WMATA headquarters every month with new forms. The current system is not easy or convenient for parents who have 9-to-5 jobs or students who are in school all day. And if your school doesn't have the proper forms, you are out of luck. These hoops likely exist to avoid fraud, but there's got to be a better way.
Neighboring jurisdictions already provide student discounts in different ways. Students in Montgomery County can ride the bus for free on weekday afternoons with a student ID or buy a discounted Youth Cruiser Pass, though like DC, you can only buy them in a few places. In Arlington, students can use a student ID or tokens to ride for 75¢.
Giving students free bus fare is a great idea, but parents and students also need an easy and convenient way to take advantage.
Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.
In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.
If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.
When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.
At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.
Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.
But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.
This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.
If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.
Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.
There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.
And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.
Parents from around DC who throng Dupont Circle's Stead Park can rejoice: Yesterday, after months of community advocacy, a DC Council committee voted to fund upgrades that will expand play space, install a jogging track, and better utilize the large playing field.
Stead Park has an endowment from the Stead Family, which will help maintain the transformational renovations, but the project requires city funds. Mayor Gray originally included $1.6 million in capital funds in his budget, but not until Fiscal Year 2015, which starts in October of 2014.
Residents asked the Council to approve the funding and move it up to FY 2014. Marion Barry (ward 8), the chairman of the Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs, was very supportive; yesterday, his committee voted 5-0 to put the funding in FY 2014, which will allow the construction happen over the next year.
The committee report says,
While the Committee applauds the Mayor for funding this initiative, the community and advocates of Stead Park are ready now for the much needed project... In order to not slow down the major progress of advocates, the committee recommends that 1.6 million of funding be moved into the FY14 budget so that the project can begin in the next fiscal year.While playground is packed, field often goes unused
Stead Park, on P Street between 16th and 17th, has some playgrounds for children, a basketball court, and a large playing field. A few wonderful sports teams and after-school programs use the field loyally and lovingly, and know how rare such space is in this part of the city.
However, the field currently doesn't get much use during the rest of the day. It's also in bad shape. Holes and dirt patches mar the surface, and large puddles make it unusable after heavy rain.
Meanwhile, Stead's extremely popular playground draws parents from Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, U Street, Shaw, Logan, and Dupont. Friends of Stead Park, whose board I serve on, has been gathering community input since last year. Because the playing field is so underused, many residents without children that we've spoken to didn't even know the acre of greenspace exists behind the playground.
On Sunday, the field hosted a rare community event: a Jewish Music Festival organized by the nearby JCC. But even though the field was bustling, the playground was still very crowded with visitors from all over. Over 20 strollers and dozens of kids and parents were trying not to bump into each other as they crammed among the jungle gyms.
The playground was renovated 6 years ago and is very popular, while the field has sadly been neglected. Many of the parents we spoke to said that while they want to stay in the city and raise their kids here, they worry that there currently is not enough multi-use space or outdoors options for recreation and community building located nearby.
Project will provide fitness, recreation, and entertainment for all ages
With the city assistance, Friends of Stead Park plans to renovate the field with a smoother surface, better drainage, and artificial turf that will hold up better with use. A jogging track with trees and benches around the edge will give people another way to use the field during the day, while it will remain large enough for the organized sports leagues that use it in the evening.
A small part of the field space will become a kiddie splash park. A performance stage behind the existing building will allow the field to host more concerts, films, and cultural programming.
Parents and community members are excited to let their kids run around the field safely and reduce congestion on the playground. They are happy that more concerts, films, and cultural programming will come to the performance stage. They were relieved that there will finally be trees, shade, and seating, and places for children to splash on hot days. They are excited to be able to go for a jog without having to battle with street traffic.
Friends of Stead Park told the committee that we are glad the city is upgrading playgrounds, including the Harrison playground on V Street. That is necessary since the number of adults and children is growing so rapidly. Stead's playground is already quite nice and doesn't have much room to expand, but this great piece of green space is crying out for better and more use.
Starting the project this year will go a long way toward encouraging families to stay in the city and to be actively engaged, as community members said recently and during public meetings last year.
We would like to thank Councilmember Barry and the other members of the committee for voting to accelerate the funding. We ask that the full Council retain this relatively low-cost, high-value project in the FY2014 budget when it votes on May 22, so we can move forward this year to start improving the field and provide some much-needed space and options for our families and our community.
Mayor Gray's budget puts serious money behind building the streetcar, but makes little mention of bus service. The mayor has demonstrated a clear and very welcome commitment to transit; to truly achieve his goals of boosting transit ridership, DC needs to improve its bus service as well.
The streetcar is not for every neighborhood
Streetcars have advantages over buses. They also have costs, including financial ones: streetcars cost more than buses. Streetcars also can't deviate around double-parked delivery vans or reroute to another road because of construction.
Other cities' experiences have shown that streetcars do attract more "choice riders," people who might not otherwise take transit, and also attract people and businesses to a corridor in a way that buses don't. Because of their economic development power, we should be able to pay much of the cost out of the extra taxes from the development we get from streetcars, and/or through direct "value capture" programs that make those who benefit economically pay some of the cost.
Still, streetcars aren't going to be especially fast. They will often be slower than buses. And in many parts of DC, where economic development isn't the goal and capacity isn't the problem, building a streetcar isn't always the answer. What we can, and must, do is make buses a more appealing mode of transit.
We need a great "frequent bus network" as well
Imagine if you could walk to certain spots in any neighborhood, wait in a comfortable location with real-time screens, and know that within a short time, a vehicle would come take you along one of several high-capacity routes that lead to other adjacent neighborhoods and across the city.
Metrorail does that now. Some of the limited-stop Circulators and Metrobus Express routes do as well. We can gain a lot of mobility for residents by adding to the number of high-frequency routes, making them even more frequent, and helping residents know about the routes by publishing "frequent network" maps that cover both the Circulator and certain Metrobus routes.
These routes all would come often enough, including nights and weekends, and run late enough that people who live nearby could choose not to own cars, use the routes (or bike or walk) for most trips, and have backup options like Zipcar, car2go, Uber, and taxis when necessary.
Where should DC invest in bus?
DC can expand and improve its frequent bus network in two ways: create new frequent routes, and make existing frequent routes faster.
New routes can be Metrobus routes or Circulator as long as they run frequently, 7 days a week, and late into the evening. Last year, a panel of residents, business leaders, and officials created a Circulator plan which lays out places for several of these routes.
Most immediately, the plan suggests extending the Dupont-Rosslyn Circulator to U Street. There's no good, direct transit right now between U Street and Dupont, and it also would create a direct link between U Street and Georgetown.
Beyond adding routes, DC can speed up existing routes. There are many spots where buses spend a lot of time in traffic. In places, buses are frequent enough that they could get their own lane, at least at peak times. WMATA and DDOT have been collaborating on a study of bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House.
Buses using H and I (and K), plus traffic counts. Image from WMATA.
Elsewhere, maybe a short "queue jumper" lane would help buses bypass a tough spot. Or retiming signals could help buses spend less time waiting for a turn. Or buses could get signal priority to hold yellow lights long enough for them to pass.
When the Circulator turns left from Connecticut onto Calvert after leaving the Woodley Park Metro, it has to make a tough left turn, and WMATA bus planners have said this is a reason they don't send the 90s buses to Woodley Park. Could this intersection give buses a short, special phase to go right from the curb to Calvert?
We don't have a lot of studies or analyses of where the buses get most delayed. This hasn't received a lot of attention from DDOT in recent years. Mary Cheh tried to put money in the budget for DDOT to work on bus projects or have staff focusing on bus priority, but nothing has really happened yet.
It's long past time to get moving on buses. Mayor Gray has set an ambitious goal that 50% of trips take transit by 2032. Building streetcars will help DC get there, but streetcars are one piece of the transit puzzle. Buses are the other biggest piece. For many neighborhoods and many corridors, they are the right piece, as long as we work hard to make them desirable options, as they can be.
A DC official says that "white liberals" don't care about social services, while black folks "aren't as passionate" about services like recreation centers. Is that right? More importantly, does it matter? Can't we have both?
Former DC resident Matt Bevilacqua talks about DC's black-white divide in a post for Next City. It's leading up to an in-depth Forefront story on DC gentrification that could either penetrate difficult subjects or rehash old, cliché tropes. We'll see!
That story includes a quotation by a "black city official who has worked on economic development policy":
On a national political level, we've always been and always will be Democratic," [the city official] told me. "But when you go down into the local landscape or subscribe to the policy of all politics are local, that liberalism has a divide. White liberals in D.C. don't give a shit about social services because they're not of that element. White liberals in D.C. are more about quality-of-life issues as it relates to the lifestyle they want to have.
It is bike lanes. It is dog parks. It is about state-of-the-art swimming facilities. It is about recreation centers. Capital Bikeshare. Car2Go. Streetcars. It's about a way of life. Black folks want this stuff, they're just not as passionate about it."
"Liberals" may not be the right word here, as it's not just liberals who want quality of life services. It's true, though, that a lot of newer white residents do want bike lanes, dog parks, swimming facilities, and rec centers. There's no reason black folks shouldn't want these too, since black folks own dogs, play sports, and have children who could benefit from pools just like folks of any other color.
But even if this official is right that black folks care about them less and white folks care more, why must these conflict? The city has not cut social services to fund dog parks; it cut both in bad times and is increasing both in good times. It does benefit certain politicians or columnists to play groups off each other, but they're not inherently at opposition.
Look at the debate on the 2011 budget, when DC faced a gap thanks to the recession and Mayor Gray proposed a small tax increase amid many cuts (cuts to things both black and white people like). Who opposed it? We had Jack Evans (white), Mary Cheh (white), and Muriel Bowser (black). The main crusader against the idea was Chairman Kwame Brown (black). Supporters included white members like Jim Graham, Phil Mendelson, and Tommy Wells, and black members like Michael Brown and Marion Barry as well as Mayor Gray.
On issues like growth, Michael Brown (black) and Phil Mendelson (white) have more in common in their voting, as do Tommy Wells (white) and Kenyan McDuffie (black). (And all are liberals, at least on national left-right issues.)
Elissa Silverman, a white liberal running for DC Council, has been one of the strongest advocates for social services in the entire city. Anita Bonds, the black interim councilmember, put out a press release about yesterday's budget which first praised its lack of tax and fee increases and the proposed bond tax cut.
We can group officials in different ways. There are black and white folks. There are also liberals and conservatives, and more urban-minded members and more suburban-minded ones. One of these divisions is easy to divine by looking at people; the others require paying attention to officials' actions.
Many voters do vote on the basis of race, but it does the city a disservice when people lump all white folks and black folks to be the same. It's not just white liberals and black liberals, but there's also white conservatives and black conservatives, or white supporters and opponents of a growing city and black supporters and opponents. We can't ignore race, but we can avoid looking only at it and ignoring every other more substantive difference between various groups of residents.
And we can absolutely have a budget that supports both social services and quality of life. Moreover, we have a mayor who won mainly with votes from black folks (and myself) who just proposed a budget that puts strong emphasis on quality of life while also growing social services.
Bike lanes, parks in NoMA and around the city, streetcars, libraries 7 days a week, new trash cans for free, school modernizations, and many more programs get funding under the operating and capital budgets Mayor Gray is unveiling this morning.
Streetcars: In the 6-year capital plan, streetcars get $400 million, which should fund completing the first line from Minnesota Avenue to Georgetown, engineering the Anacostia line, and studies for north-south lines such as Georgia Avenue.
The operating budget contains $6.2 million to start running the streetcar, which Gray continues to promise will roll by the end of the calendar year.
Bike infrastructure: There is a pot of $10.7 million for bike lanes and trails, which appears to be entirely new; formerly, there was no dedicated local bike money. The budget staff have promised to follow up to confirm this. Another $5.1 million will go to "bike-friendly streetscapes," which will be interesting to see in more detail.
Capital Bikeshare: The mayor is funding 10 more Capital Bikeshare stations beyond the ones that area already supposed to be going in. In December, DDOT announced 78 locations, of which it had funding for 54 and was going to install those by March. Unfortunately, it's late in installing most of those. That list also identified 24 future locations, so this budget funds 10.
Buses: The budget office's presentation did not discuss the Circulator or other bus projects. I will follow up to find out whether any Circulator expansion in that master plan have funding. Streetcars are important, but they are one of several modes we need, and for many neighborhoods, better bus service is the better way to help people get around.
Bridges: The South Capitol "racetrack" project and new Frederick Douglass Bridge gets $622.5 million, which would fully fund the project.
Taxes: The budget imposes no new taxes or fees, maintains DC's fund balance, and keeps the debt cap at 12%. The administration also wants to get rid of the tax on out-of-state bonds, which they say primarily impacts seniors and is far and away the biggest complaint they get about taxes. Gray chief of staff Chris Murphy said they "always felt it was ill-conceived."
Affordable housing: As promised, the administration is putting a one-time $100 million into affordable housing. $86.9 million goes into the Housing Production Trust Fund, ($20M in FY 2014 and the rest in FY 2013). The rest, $13.1 million, goes to other smaller initiatives that the recent Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force recommended. He is also promising to keep the 15% of the Deed Recordation and Transfer Tax, which is supposed to go to the HPTF, in there; previous budgets raided that to fund other programs.
Parks: The capital budget provides $50 million for parks (likely a few different small parks) in NoMA: $25 million to acquire land, and $25 million for development. DC made a mistake when it upzoned NoMA without any plan for parks, which is why this is going to be expensive. However, NoMA is generating a lot of tax revenue.
Other parks capital spending includes $20 million fro the Fort Dupont ice arena, $26.4 million for Barry Farm, $2M to renovate and improve athletic fields and parks, $18M for the Southeast tennis & learning center, and funding to modernize 32 play spaces in 8 wards including Fort Greble, Palisades, Macomb, and Takoma which will start in April as well as already-underway work at Noyes, Raymond, and Rosedale.
Libraries: Gray is expanding funding for DC Public Libraries so that every library can be open 7 days a week. Most will be open until 9 pm Monday to Thursday as well as afternoons on Saturday and Sunday. They also get $2 million for books and e-books.
Further, the budget provides $103 million to renovate and, as part of a public-private partnership, expand the MLK Library. There is $15.2 million to renovate the Cleveland Park library, $21.7 for the Palisades library, and $4.8 million for Woodridge's library.
Trash: Residents who want to replace their trash cans are in luck: the administration wants to replace everyone's trash cans over 5 years, for free. If there is money available, they also hope to let people replace stolen or damaged cans without the fee residents have to pay today.
Flooding: Bloomingdale residents hopefully will see some relief from their flooding problems with $1.5 million in the budget to pay for recommendations from the task force studying those problems.
Police and fire: The public safety budget pays for 4,000 sworn officers, replacing police and fire vehicles, cadet training programs and maintaining domestic violence programs that are seeing federal cuts. In general, the budget officials say, they are replacing all federal from sequestration across the board, even assuming sequestration will continue throughout the year.
Raises: DC employees will get their first pay raise in 4-7 years, spanning both union and non-union employees, and DC will fully fund its pension obligations.
We'll have more analysis and further details in upcoming posts.
At the recent International Open Data Hackathon, Justin Grimes put the DC budget into a "treemap," a chart that shows a lot of items as rectangles of different sizes. This makes it very easy to understand how much money is going to different functions.
Since Justin's spreadsheet was public, I was able to make a copy to tweak a few things. I modified some of the titles to get the agency's abbreviation to the start, so that you can understand more of them in the top-level chart, and revised the color scale to one that should be more perceptible to color-blind readers.
The colors represent which categories increased or decreased in FY2013, the budget approved last year for the fiscal year we're in now. Green boxes increased more, while purple boxes decreased. Though sometimes categories in the DC budget grow and shrink because functions get shifted from one to another, so it can be tricky to really understand increase and decrease numbers without delving into the budget deeply.
What do you notice in the budget?
And if you make a better treemap using a tool without some of the limitations of the Google one, or make a treemap for another area jurisdiction's budget, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Sandra Moscoso for the tip.
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- Arlington considers using fees to reduce parking
- Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business