A long-awaited moment in budget season comes when DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson releases his package of budget changes, which combine, reconcile, and sometimes reverse things from the individual committees. Here are some of the changes most connected to issues we cover, particularly on transportation and the environment as well as housing and other hot-button issues.
On transportation, this year Mendelson kept most of the changes proposed by Mayor Bowser and Councilmember Mary Cheh, with a few key changes. The most notable change is to add $23 million to build a tunnel from NoMa Metro to the east side of the railroad tracks. This would bring Union Market and homes on the east side four minutes closer to the station, likely substantially increasing ridership.
WMATA analyzed the feasibility in 2015. Trammell Crow is building the Armature Works development on the other side of the tracks, and agreed to leave space for the tunnel at the request of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C and area commissioner Tony Goodman, who is now chief of staff to Councilmember David Grosso (at-large). Charles Allen (ward 6), whose ward includes the tunnel area, has been making this project one of his major budget requests.
Meanwhile, Mendelson cut funding in 2020 and 2021 for the K Street Transitway and increased funding in later years, likely delaying the project by at least a year. DDOT did not have immediate comment about whether this cut will still allow them to move forward with a one year delay or stymie the project entirely.
Other Cheh-nges survive
The council listened to our community and retained the Residential Parking Permit (RPP) increases proposed by Cheh (ward 3) to $50 for the first car in a household, $75 for the second, $100 for the third, and $150 for the fourth and up. Seniors pay $35 for the first. The budget also retains a 1% increases in the tax on soda and other carbonated beverages, which encountered significant opposition from some councilmembers.
As Cheh recommended, the Circulator will go back to a fare of $1. Traffic cameras will stay under the purview of the police instead of moving to DDOT. Bowser tried to move them to DDOT, which Cheryl Cort says will make the camera program focus more on safety. Cheh rejected the change, partly because she thinks the issue needs to be debated as standalone legislation, and partly because she's not convinced it's a good idea.
Charles Allen, who oversees the judiciary committee, didn't accept the transfer back in his budget markup, which forced Mendelson to decide. He resolved this in favor of keeping the cameras at MPD for now, at least until there is regular legislation including a hearing and more debate on the issue.
Other Cheh elements which are still in the budget including a decongestion pricing study requested by DCST and a program to add one staff member at DDOT who will create scooter and bike parking spaces in commercial districts. There will also be three new public space inspectors focusing on walking and biking paths in construction sites, a new full-time person at DDOT to work on Safe Routes to School.
The council added funding to finish designing the Eastern Downtown Cycletrack on 6th or 9th streets NW (but as yet no consequence if the mayor doesn't build it). The mayor funded the Crosstown Cycletrack between Columbia Heights and Brookland, funding the council kept.
On the environment
On replacing lead pipes, Valerie Baron wrote about how a new law requires DC Water to replace all of a lead pipe to a house, not just half of the pipe which is on public property. Environmental activitsts were asking for at least $1 million for the lead pipe program, and Mendelson's budget obliges with exactly a million.
FInally, I'm looking forward to seeing the results of a study, funded with $100,000, to look at the effects of “synthetic materials in recreational spaces,” aka rubber or other turf fields. A number of people say that the artificial rubber is hazardous, while others say it's fine, and I'd love to see some science on this matter, though from what I've been able to find out there isn't a lot of research yet.
Plus affordable housing and more
The chairman took $60 million from Events DC, operator of the convention center and other entertainment venues. It has built up a $176.07 million reserve fund, and affordable housing advocates had been asking the council to take some of the reserve for affordable housing. Mendelson did this with $30 million, while using another $30 million to eliminate a hotel tax increase the mayor had proposed. (The CFO doesn't think he can do this, which might mean some kind of battle coming up.)
He backed down on highly controversial changes to the Freedom of Information Act, which would have required more “particularity” in requests and potentially shielded some of councilmembers' correspondence, like that of Jack Evans soliciting lobbying business, from disclosure.
It'll be worth watching a new Expenditure Commission the chairman created. It's similar to a Tax Revision Commission which worked from 2012 to 2013 to recommend changes in DC's tax code. The final recommendations substantially reduced taxes while also making the tax structure more progressive. The Expenditure Commission will look at trends in budgets, revenues, and expenditures and make recommendations about future budgets.
The council will vote Tuesday morning on the final budget, and then take a second vote in two weeks.