Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

DC faces huge budget gaps, and every agency is being asked to make cuts, most of which take a little from everything. For DDOT, do you have any ideas for bigger cuts that should be considered, or revenue increases to look into?

The DC Council held a marathon hearing yesterday to listen to feedback on closing DC’s massive budget gap. Most of the witnesses just asked for specific programs not to be cut, rather than presenting ideas for different cuts in their place. Many advocates called for tax increases, which I think should be part of the final package along with many cuts.

In transportation and planning as well as many other areas, the cuts generally spread the pain out across the board rather than cutting specific programs far more or eliminating any governmental activities entirely, though a few do get completely wiped out. For DDOT, for example, these are some of the cuts:

  • $2.2 million from road, sidewalk, and alley repairs
  • $300,000 out of $1.5 million from bike-ped safety programs
  • $416,000 from traffic control officers around the ballpark and convention center
  • $244,000 from school crossing guards
  • $620,000 from street trees (see below)
  • The entire $7 million “streetscape survival fund,” payments to small businesses affected by recent streetscape projects to help them weather the hit to their business from the construction.
  • $500,000 from a parking rate increase at Metrorail lots in the District, which is a nonstarter since it requires WMATA Board approval and the Board won’t even have time to consider this in the brief timeframe, let alone whether outer jurisdiction members would approve a hike that some of their residents would have to pay.

This is painful but most of the smaller cuts are probably a reasonable way to spread out the pain. But here are a few ideas for areas to cut more deeply or raise some revenue to restore a few cuts:

Eliminate poorly performing staff in IPMA. IPMA is the Infrastructure and Project Management Administration, which handles the repavings and the streetscapes and all that. Almost any neighborhood activist has a host of stories of poor presentations by IPMA engineers and project managers who lacked good communication skills. There are also many people at IPMA who are locked in the old style of transportation engineering, building everything to a standard in a manual and not really listening to residents who want safer streets instead of higher speed traffic.

At the same time, there are good people at IPMA too. Sometimes it’s hard in government to get rid of just the bad people, but to the extent this is possible, DDOT could use a good housecleaning in IPMA. Since fewer streets and alleys will be repaved and fewer sidewalks reconstructed, the department could probably make do with fewer people for a few years. Then, when things pick up again, they can hire high quality people in place of the bad ones they got rid of.

Reduce regular tree trimming. Some trees really need trimming, but there are also many cases where people don’t actually want their trees trimmed. I was pretty dismayed to find a crew cutting whole limbs off the tree in front of my house one day, limbs which shade my windows in the summer. Since I work from home, I was able to stop them though now some limbs are oddly truncated. Meanwhile, another set of friends who just bought a house in Logan Circle came home one day to find almost half their tree lopped off, a significant aesthetic decrease.

It could be that pruning helps trees live longer, but when I spoke to the Urban Forestry Administration about my tree, mainly they simply said that this was their “standard” and they have all contractors trim all trees to the “standard.” We can probably do with a little less adherence to that standard, at least for a while.

The budget takes $200,000 out of tree trimming, $300,000 out of tree planting, and $120,000 from hazardous tree removal, saying there has been low demand for removing hazardous trees. I wonder if DDOT scale back even more its payments to the contractors who do this trimming. Its in-house arborists could spend less time on trimming and more on making sure the trees that are planted get watered.

Increase the Circulator fare. The Circulator costs $1. Metrobus costs $1.70 or $1.50 with SmarTrip. Yet the Circulator is more reliable and draws more tourists and people in well-off neighborhoods, where it primarily runs. This wasn’t intentional but it’s totally unfair.

Raise the Circulator fare to $2 cash (which is easy for tourists to pay and is still far cheaper than a cab) and $1.50 with SmarTrip, the same amount as on any other Metrobus. If a Circulator runs on a better schedule or a better route than other buses, people should ride it, but not because it’s cheaper.

Increase the off-street parking tax. Jim Graham suggested this yesterday. He suggested raising it as high as 18% from the current 12.5%, which could bring in $19 million in revenue per year.

The Post’s Nikita Stewart writes that “The amount does not account for the loss of customers who could balk at an increase,” though given the amount of competition for commercial garages, a tax increase here may not lead to as much of a consumer price increase. It could just cut into the profits of garage owners and the revenue that building owners get from garages. In the long run, that could create more of an incentive to redevelop large surface parking lots.

DC could also grant garage owners a full or partial exemption from the increase for implementing certain measures like automated cash collection systems to ensure the tax is being correctly reported. In addition, the new zoning code requires certain numbers of bicycle spaces and car sharing spaces, and requires surface lots to have a certain amount of landscaping. If an existing lot complied with these rules, perhaps it should get some relief from the added tax.

Close the free parking tax loophole. This is another longer-term measure that keeps getting kicked down the road and then is too long-term to implement in any budget cycle. But the off-street parking tax contains a big loophole, leaving out facilities that provide free parking to employees rather than contracting through a commercial operator. In the downtown area, these spaces should be taxed at a similar rate to commercial spaces.

This proposal has been introduced in the Council in the past as the “Clean Air Compliance Fee.” It wouldn’t help with the immediate budget, but it seems that the most meaningful budget measures get little attention outside budget crises, and then during every crisis it’s too late to implement it.

Contract out local bus routes. This is another longer-term issue, but again worth talking about while people are seriously thinking about budgets. If DC took over its local bus routes and contracted them out, DDOT believes it could save quite a lot of money.

What else? Do you have other ideas for ways to make bigger cuts or raise revenue in transportation?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.