Photo by wallyg on Flickr.

The DC Council met today to discuss the budget. At times, the discussion became quite heated, particularly when some members were defending the rights of people who own 3 cars and make over $200,000, yet wouldn’t consider driving downtown for dinner if it cost them $4 to park.

Councilmembers Jack Evans (ward 2), Mary Cheh (ward 3) (see note), Muriel Bowser (4), Harry Thomas, Jr. (5) and Phil Mendelson (at-large) all expressed opposition to the proposal passed by the Committee on Public Works and Transportation to make residential parking permit (RPP) fees $35 for one car, $50 for a second car, and $100 for third and additional cars in a household.

Cheh (see note) and Bowser also both voiced support for Evans’ committee recommendation to blindly lower parking rates in the busiest areas to $1 per hour instead of $2, and to have meters stop charging in the evenings. This may make sense in a few areas, but in most places will make traffic worse and parking harder for those who drive.

Few issues generated as much passion, though there was plenty of argument over numbers of police officers, UDC funding and more. But in a budget that makes very deep cuts, there was more passion for keeping parking cheap and for keeping taxes on the wealthy low than anything for keeping people off the street and from going hungry.

Evans, generally the Council’s most eager to “comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted,” complained that the RPP increase was “nickel and diming,” and said that if the Council wants to fund an initiative, “just fund it.” But earlier in the session, he presented his own committee report which recommended removing almost every source of revenue for the Council to “just fund” many important programs.

In response, Tommy Wells pointed out that last year Metro rail and bus riders suffered a significant fare increase, one which costs people a lot more than $25 or even $100 per year (the extra amount a 3-car owning household would pay under Wells’ proposal.) But, as Evans repeatedly brought up during the meeting, he doesn’t take transit, so he isn’t sensitive to that.

Mary Cheh repeated some of her comments complaining that the Circulator expansion plan doesn’t go to Ward 3 enough, and recommended a line in the Palisades. This is one of the lowest density parts of the city with very few commercial nodes and is rarely a destination for non-residents. In other words, it’s one of the least appropriate candidates for a Circulator. Is she worried about getting votes from the Palisades?

The Circulator plan actually does include a future line expansion along Connecticut and Wisconsin, and eventually along Military from Friendship Heights across Rock Creek.

Bowser and Thomas similarly made many arguments complaining about how certain budget proposals don’t do more for their own wards. It was very disappointing to have so much debate about policy based on how much investment goes into each ward when growth downtown benefits all. On the other hand, it’s true that we should do more to improve transit service for neighborhoods in wards 4 and 5, as well as 7 and 8, plus 1, 2, 3, and 6.

Cheh also repeated some Board of Trade talking points that the parking meter rates might drive away potential customers for businesses. That’s not false in the areas where parking is regularly not filling up; I previously endorsed studying parking occupancy and lowering it in areas that aren’t filling up. The “Parking Czar” funded partly with the RPP money would hopefully solve these problems. Just dropping the rates sight unseen would make traffic worse and parking harder in many areas.

The most intelligent comment from someone other than Wells — and, honestly, one of the very few intelligent comments from any non-Wells councilmember in the whole parking discussion — came from Michael Brown (at-large). He pointed out that the issue most residents have with parking meters is having to put in large numbers of quarters or return periodically to feed meters.

That’s another argument for hiring a good parking manager at DDOT as soon as possible. DDOT actually has upgraded all or almost all of the higher price meters to take credit cards or to use multispace meters, so some councilmembers may be reacting to constituent complaints from years past which have been largely addressed. Still, DDOT’s parking strategy and roadmap remains a mystery, if they even have one, and it would go a long way to alleviate fears for them to devise and publicize one.

This parochial argumentation seemed more bizarre in the context of all the cuts that threaten the life or health of some of the least fortunate residents. Asking households with 3 cars to pay $100 more per year is apparently “exorbitant,” to use Thomas’ term, but having families unable to get basic food and shelter didn’t stir up nearly as much outrage.

Nor did saving Metro service. Wells’ chief of staff, Charles Allen, tweeted that it’s “disappointing to see how many people don’t see affordable mass transit as an issue of econcomic justice & access to jobs.”

My neighborhood wouldn’t benefit from the immediate Circulator expansion, isn’t going to get a streetcar, and has few people on TANF. My household may well pay more in taxes under the Mayor’s proposal. But I don’t want my councilmembers voting against everything that doesn’t benefit me personally. We should be looking to make the city better for all, and it quite simply won’t make the city worse for all or even much worse for anyone if wealthy households do a little bit more.

For a DC Council that has often been quite progressive on human rights, the environment and more, it’s sad to see such resistance to progressive measures on finance and transportation even from several otherwise excellent members.

The tax hike on people making over $200,000 even has strong support from residents in all wards, and even from residents who would be affected, yet so many councilmembers want to delete that proposal from the budget at the expense of the least fortunate.

The Council has still not decided on council-wide priorities for funding and spending. Contact your members and ask them to keep the RPP increase, reject the parking meter decrease, and to fund the council-wide priorities for Metro, affordable housing, and homeless services as the top priorities.

Update: Councilmember Cheh has clarified her position on both parking issues. She wants to tailor meter rates to neighborhoods (as do I) and is willing to let the DDOT “Parking Czar” work out a good approach, and says she is now supportive has always been supportive of the RPP increase. Thanks, Councilmember Cheh!