Photo by Lester Public Library on Flickr.

One provision slipped into the Budget Support Act in the middle of the night eliminates DDOT’s “unified fund,” which dedicates transportation revenues for transportation improvements.

Why should you care about this esoteric budget management tool? The Unified Fund gives DDOT the flexibility to move projects much more quickly than in the typical government agency. It can respond to sudden needs, quickly implement new technology, and adapt to overruns or under-budget projects.

DOT has sometimes pushed the envelope on using this power, and sometimes there’s not enough transparency. But any reform of the Unified Fund should happen with more public discussion. The proposal wasn’t floated publicly until the middle of last night, and it doesn’t affect the FY2011 budget gap at all. The Council should hold off on any change until the next budget cycle or a separate bill.

If an intersection really needs to be modified for pedestrian safety, DDOT has the power to move its money around to do that.  When DDOT decided to upgrade parking meters to credit cards following the “16 quarters” backlash, they could do that thanks to the Unified Fund. If DDOT is able to expand Capital Bikeshare as they are hoping, the Unified Fund will give them the flexibility to do that. It made it possible to launch CaBi in just 12 months.

Sometimes federal money suddenly becomes available at a moment’s notice, and DDOT can move things around to take advantage of it. Last year’s snowpocalypse/snowmageddon suddenly cost $16 million in overruns. Other projects end up coming in 20% under budget.

Under the standard budgeting process, each change from one project to another requires the Mayor to submit a reprogramming request that goes to the Council. DDOT would have to submit hundreds of these every year. Most likely it would also mean that every project under budget puts its revenue into the general fund, but new projects would be hard to get through the Council.

DDOT can run a little more like a business than many government agencies. It can be nimble, at least when it’s run by an innovative director.

There’s also value in keeping the revenues from transportation in transportation. Many fees involve collecting money from suburban commuters and visitors. The money will go to DC priorities one way or the other, but by ensuring that drivers’ money goes to improving transportation that benefits those drivers in some way through better transportation systems, it reduces political conflicts.

In the same way it gives DDOT some flexibility, the Unified Fund also gives them the ability to move money around in ways that elected officials can’t always see. Sometimes DDOT plays a bit of a shell game, suddenly moving money from one place to another behind their back so that it’s harder to control.

The Council is right to examine this fund and look into reforms that might curb abuses or at least increase transparency. However, it’s particularly ironic to fix a DDOT transparency problem through a process that has very little transparency of its own.

Nobody publicly floated the idea of changing the Unified Fund until last night. DDOT and the CFO’s office say they weren’t involved in analyzing the change and suggesting alternatives. We haven’t discussed it and I haven’t been able to understand the details. And we haven’t been able to discuss options other than wholesale elimination.

The change is even obscured in the bill:

SUBTITLE C. DISTRICT DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION OMNIBUS ACT OF 2010
Sec. 621. Short title.
This subtitle may be cited as the “District Department of Transportation Omnibus Act of 2010”.
Sec. 622.  Section 9(c) of the Department of Transportation Establishment Act of 2002, effective October 20, 2005 (D.C. Law 16-33; D.C. Official Code § 50-921.11) is repealed.


Where the rest of the sections of the Budget Support Act have descriptive titles, like “SUSTAINABLE ENERGY TRUST FUND” or “RECIPROCAL STATE-FEDERAL OFFSET PROGRAM,” this section is mysteriously listed just as “OMNIBUS ACT” even though it only does one thing, and makes no mention in the legislation of the Unified Fund or anything about what’s in §50-921.11. (It’s the Unified Fund.)

I can’t know, but it smells like someone was trying to put that in without anyone noticing. I only knew what this was because I had heard the Council budget office was considering changing the Unified Fund, and when this odd-looking provision appeared, immediately looked to see if that’s what this referred to.

Update: Justin Constantino in the budget office says that there were other provisions in there, which is why it was called omnibus, and then they deleted those others but neglected to change the title.

It’d be irresponsible for the Council to drastically overhaul the way DDOT manages its budget with a small, opaque provision in a last-minute budget bill. That bill’s purpose is to close the gap; this isn’t a gap closing measure. Therefore, there’s no reason not to give this some light and air. The Council should strike this section today and then consider separate legislation and a real hearing for any change.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.