Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

If performance parking works, it could raise needed funds to make DC’s bus lines more efficient and more attractive to ride. DDOT will get the authority to bring performance parking citywide, but DDOT will now have make the program succeed before there’s any money for buses or local neighborhood projects.

The DC Council’s Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation approved their version of DDOT’s budget yesterday. They agreed with Mayor Gray’s request to let DDOT set up performance parking anywhere in DC, beyond the 3 zones where it exists today.

When performance parking raises extra money, it will go partly to projects in local neighborhoods and partly to make bus service more efficient. But if DDOT doesn’t follow through on performance parking, local neighborhoods and buses could get nothing at all.

Performance parking money goes to neighborhoods and bus priority

Mayor Gray had proposed ending the practice, which the original performance parking pilot zones established, of putting some parking money toward projects in the local neighborhood. The committee restored that in part. Now, if a performance parking zone raises extra mone over its “baseline” revenue from before performance parking, half of that money can go toward transportation projects in that neighborhood.

In other words, if DDOT extends meter hours or raises rates, half of the extra revenue from that change can go to local projects. Before, just setting up a performance parking zone meant that 75% of the total revenue, including the preexisting revenue, went to the neighborhood (though, in some cases, some of that revenue had to pay for new meters). The neighborhoods with performance parking got to spend some money right off the bat, even if DDOT never tweaked meter rates and hours. And in some of the zones, DDOT took a painfully long time to do so.

What about the other half of the money? The committee’s budget probably dedicates that to bus priority improvements.

While DDOT needs to do its utmost to make the H Street streetcar a success and lay the groundwork for future lines, streetcars won’t go everywhere and won’t magically solve all of DC’s transportation problems. The District spends $190 million per year to subsidize on bus service, yet many buses spend a lot of time in traffic and many people don’t want to ride a bus that’s not the Circulator.

Reducing bus delay could save a lot of money and draw more riders to the bus system. The many Metrobus line studies came up with countless recommendations for how to make service better: moving a stop across the street, changing a turn signal to help buses through a rough spot, improving enforcement to avoid illegal loading, adding a bus lane, and so on.

Funds depend on DDOT implementing performance parking

A dedicated pot of money will push DDOT to move ahead with these important changes. These projects won’t have to compete with others for money. That assumes there is money, though. Before any money goes to bus improvements, WMATA gets about $30 million for existing bus operations. The CFO’s office estimates that DC’s meters today will almost cover that. DDOT is upgrading old meters to newer ones with better technology that break less and therefore are less likely to lose revenue; the WMATA payment also assumes that those upgrades continue.

If DDOT goes ahead with the upgrades and then starts managing its curbside space more efficiently, the meter revenue will surpass the $30 million mark. Local neighborhoods and bus priority projects will get funded. If the meter upgrades get delayed and DDOT doesn’t tweak rates and hours, it could fall short, and both neighborhoods and bus priority could end up with nothing for the year.

An amendment from Tommy Wells at the markup specifically asks DDOT to make bus priority improvements on downtown segments of H and I streets a top priority for the money. WMATA has said that this congested area forms a major bottleneck for bus routes from all parts of the District; bus lanes here could do the most to reduce delays. A consultant is currently studying traffic operations along H and I, and their report will help DDOT design the lanes to best move bus traffic and minimize the amount of extra delay for drivers.

To help get performance parking moving downtown, the legislation specifically instructs DDOT to work on performance parking with DC Surface Transit, the business-led group that was been instrumental in bringing in the Circulator and promoting the streetcar. DCST and downtown businesses have been eager for performance parking.

Other changes in the budget

The budget also takes steps to restore the pedestrian and bicycle enhancement fund, which pays for a number of smaller pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure projects. In addition, $100,000 comes from the Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning to fund a new volunteer Trail Ranger program, similar to one in Denver. The money pays for a grant to an organization like WABA to manage that program.

The committee asked DDOT to use federal funds to redo the streetscape on Florida Avenue between 2nd and 10th Streets NE. Florida Avenue is wider here than elsewhere, but the sidewalk is far too narrow even though it adjoins the growing NoMa district and Gallaudet students often walk along the road. DDOT has already acknowledged in an earlier study that the sidewalk needs to be better here.

Finally, the budget takes a little bit out of transportation to fund a few of Cheh’s other priorities, including a program encouraging food stamp recipients to buy food at farmers’ markets ($50,000), help fund the Office of Campaign Finance ($100,000), and a tax break for a homeless services organization ($10,800).

A good budget gets better

Mayor Gray’s original DDOT budget was an excellent proposal. It funded the streetcar, preserved Metro service, and took the very significant step of pushing for performance parking citywide. Gray made it clear that he stands behind initiatives that enhance walking, bicycling, and transit.

The way the budget used parking meter revenue was the biggest issue council staff had with the budget. The Mayor’s proposal sent all parking meter revenue straight to WMATA.  It’s great to fund transit, but the problem with this approach is that DC doesn’t just give more or less to WMATA as money is available; its commitment gets set in the WMATA budget.

Far more money comes from the general fund for WMATA, and a small amount from meters. As meter revenue increased, it would just have replaced general fund support. That would have only fueled the criticism that performance parking is just a way to raise money.

Perfromance parking is best when local neighborhoods also get a benefit from meter changes, and when money goes toward improving the other ways shoppers, diners, office workers and others can travel to an area besides driving and parking. The commitee’s budget restores that nexus. Money DDOT raises from changing parking will directly help fund programs that make neighborhoods either easier to get to or more attractive.

This budget recommendation will next go to the entire council as part of the overall budget debate. The council should preserve what the committee has done.