Which would you rather have running Mayor-elect Vincent Gray’s transportation transition team?
A former City Administrator under Marion Barry, who was running the city during the famous episode where Barry flippantly dismissed snow plowing failures while he was at the Super Bowl?
Or a former CEO of Amtrak, head of UMD’s smart growth center, and occasional blogger who wrote excitedly about the return of streetcars, the value of high-speed rail, and the need for a federal transportation reauthorization?
What if they’re the same guy?
Vincent Gray announced the core members of his transition team yesterday. For transportation, the co-chairs are Thomas Downs and Cellerino Bernardino. The Examiner reports that both had prominent roles under Mayor Barry.
Downs served as transportation chief (DDOT was not yet a separate agency) from 1981 to 1983, and then became City Administrator, including during the famous snow incident. Bernardino, the article says, was DPW chief in the last Barry administration but resigned “under an onslaught of criticism” when the District couldn’t effectively pick up trash or fix potholes.
It sounds bleak. Many people worried that Gray, despite his repeated insistence that he would continue public education reform, avoid cronyism, and support transit and bicycling, was just going to be the third coming of Marion Barry. Appointing two former Barry officials to run this important segment of the transition might give credence to those fears.
It was my first reaction upon reading the Examiner article as well. DCist came to the same conclusion, titling its morning roundup entry, “The Transition, Brought To You By The 90s and Marion Barry.” But a very different picture of Downs emerges if you read this bio and his Citiwire posts.
Besides having headed up the DC government, Amtrak, and the National Center for Smart Growth Education and Research at the University of Maryland, Downs is now the North American chairman of Veolia Transportation, one of the French rail companies that have recently been providing real competition in the U.S. transit operator market.
That doesn’t mean we can stop being vigilant toward Gray’s appointments. Bernardino most recently was defending a massive big-box development at DC’s edge, touting its “green” features except for its enormously non-green land use and transportation footprint. In economic development, which will likely include planning, the transition members are Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Lang and former GWU President Joel Trachtenberg. They’re certainly no Barry cronies nor are they anti-growth by any stretch of the imagination; if anything, they might come down on the side of being excessively pro-growth.
Lang isn’t the most progressive thinker on cities, though. She thinks it’s not safe for women to be out in downtown DC after 10 pm, arguing as a result that transit is useless and everyone needs parking. She also didn’t even know she provides SmartBenefits to her employees.
Despite the Examiner’s spin, it doesn’t look like the Gray transition is a return to the Marion Barry crowd. It does primarily comprise people who did the most for DC during the 1980s and 1990s, including the widely acclaimed Alice Rivlin, head of the Financial Control Board in the late 90s.
This group has a great wealth of experience, but will need to avoid the common temptation to think about all DC’s problems in the same framework as we did 20 years ago and recommend the same solutions we applied to the problems of that era. With department leaders like Gabe Klein, we have people pushing 21st-century solutions.
Good people of the 20th century can also push 21st-century solutions, but need to listen to a wider group of voices beyond those that were active in the 1990s and be willing to take chances on leaders, like Gabe Klein, who don’t necessarily follow the traditional mold. Will this group think outside the box? Time will tell.