Vincent Gray Stumbles On Streetcar Issue: Loose Lips Daily
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BUDGET CLUSTERF**K 2010: Unfortunately, yesterday wasn't dominated by thought-provoking answers on how the District government could restore funds to services that address its most vulnerable residents. Yesterday was all about streetcar drama. It began at midnight with Gray's decision to cut streetcar funds. He argued that the cuts would have gone a long way toward closing the budget gap. Then....all hell broke loose. Here's a timeline:
*At Noon: D.C. Wire reported that the D.C. Council voted to strip funding for the streetcar project: "The D.C. Council Wednesday approved stripping funds designated to bring streetcar service back to the city in an effort to close a $550 million budget gap. The vote effectively delays the launch of the streetcars. The council still must vote on the change when it votes on the full budget later today. The council voted to take $49 million for street car system and distribute it among other projects. Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation, was lobbying furiously to save the funds from being redistributed. 'It will essentially kill the program,' he said. 'If they kill it, basically, it goes on ice.'"
*At 1:10 p.m.: Council Chairman Vincent Gray released a statement affirming the decision to kill streetcar funding: "I am firmly committed to a new streetcar system in the District. But we owe it ourselves to have a well thought out planning process. We can't afford the mayor's approach of 'build now and plan later', which only results in poor outcomes and much higher costs in the end."
Here's more from the Gray statement:
“But we owe it to ourselves to have a well thought out planning process. We can’t afford to adopt the Mayor’s approach of “build now and plan later,” which only results in poor outcomes and much higher costs in the end. Comprehensive planning, transportation and engineering work needs to be done, and the Council has allocated $5 million to complete the planning process necessary to give us the most efficient use of our dollars. I have every intention of moving forward with streetcars however, we need to use some of the dollars for more immediate projects, like renovation of middle schools.
This approach, which was passed today by the Council by a vote of 11-2 in the Committee of the Whole, will allow for better collaboration and cooperation with residents, business owners, and other stakeholders, and result in a much better streetcar system in the end.”
D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells' streetcar defense—and the back and forth—hit Twitter:
"I believe this will kill this project for another generation" — Tommy Wells.
Tommy Wells: "Are you aware we may lose $100-197M in stimulus funding?" Gray: "Yes."
*At 3:10 p.m.: WaPo's Nikita Stewart reports that streetcar funding may be resurrected: "Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) is expected to announce Wednesday that the city has found enough money to restore funding for street car service in the District. Earlier Wednesday, the council approved taking $49 million from the streetcars to use to balance city's budget and help fund other projects. That vote effectively delayed the launch of the streetcars by two years."
*At 3:35: D.C. Wire's Nikita Stewart reports that the streetcar project has been saved. "Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said $10 million would be made available immediately to purchase streetcars in fiscal 2011. Another $37 million would be place in reserve pending an operations and funding proposal from Mayor Adrian Fenty. The council would then have to approve the proposal. The decision to restore funding came just hours after the council decided to pull money from the streetcars to fund other services. But within moments of the decision, the council was inundated with calls."
*At 8:22 p.m.: Gray Spokesperson Doxie McCoy sent out an e-mail declaring that the press had gotten it all wrong about the Council Chairman killing streetcars. The statement is as wonky and deliberative as you can imagine. It's also amazingly lame damage control [strong use of bold and Ital all McCoy's]:
"Streetcars were never dead. Earlier today, the Chairman got the Council to slow them down to allow proper planning, which is still required after the vote on the Fiscal year 10 and 11 budgets today. Since the statement below from earlier this afternoon, during the break between the Committee of the Whole and the legislative session, Gray consulted with the CFO’s office to look for alternatives to move forward given plans on H Street and Benning Road, NE already underway. And here is what they came up with: identified $10M in capital funds to be borrowed in FY to purchase three cars for H and Benning that had been in the works….plus $37M in capital funding to be borrowed. However, the $37 M will not be released until the executive presents a planning and financing plan to the Council for approval. In real dollars, the District will have to pay $4 M in FY 10 and 11 to cover the debt created by the borrowing and the CFO says that amount is available in the debt service reserves fund and will not affect any other projects or programs."
I can't wait to see Gray debate his waffling on streetcars. The Council Chairman makes a good point, one echoed by policy wonks—that the street car project may need a more rigorous plan. Still, he had given zero indication—at least publicly—that streetcar funds were on the chopping block. He just looked silly slaughtering the streetcar funds at the last minute. Did yesterday's scene remind you of Linda Cropp's waffling on baseball? First she was for it. Then she was against it. Then who the hell remembers?
AFTER THE JUMP—More streetcars, more budget winners and losers.
STREETCAR FALLOUT: WaPo's Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart provide excellent coverage of yesterday's fight over streetcars. D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray needs to position himself as the champion of those left out of Fenty's dog-park love, rec center ribbon cuttings, and well, improving schools and decreases in crime. But he also can't alienate the yuppies and/or nostalgic old-timers who embraced streetcars. Craig and Stewart write:
"After a backlash from at least one member of Congress and hundreds of residents who jammed government phone lines, community e-mail groups and Gray's Web site — the late-night maneuver had been scrapped. By midday Wednesday, Gray was back at the council dais, telling his colleagues that he and city finance officials had found $50 million to keep the streetcar program on track.
The saga of the streetcars is emblematic of one of the central tensions between the campaigns of Gray and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as well as the voters they're targeting. Fenty has been criticized for favoring newcomers over more established Washingtonians and for using scarce resources to build dog parks, recreation centers and streetcar lines instead of bolstering more traditional social services.
Gray has sought to capitalize on that sentiment by establishing himself as a champion of those who feel left out, but he must do so without turning off voters who value the new services.
In the days leading up to Wednesday's budget vote, Gray had sought to navigate political land mines surrounding proposals to establish a soda tax, increase taxes on the wealthy and restore millions in proposed cuts to social service programs.
Touting himself as the candidate in the September Democratic primary who can unite the city, Gray tried to fashion an election-year budget that would keep him from making enemies in a city often divided by class and race."
Gray did himself no favors by appearing to be a little too cute with the budget. He waited till the 11th hour to cut the streetcar funding. And he never provided a real alternative to the proposed tax increase on the city's wealthy elites. Instead, he looked like he was playing politics. More streetcar coverage via The Examiner, NC8, WBJ.
TAX PLAN FAILS: Despite Save Our Safety Net's Wilson Building protest this morning (NBC4), the D.C. Council ruled out a tax increase on the District's top wage earners as a way to restore funds to social services. The Examiner reports: "The D.C. Council voted down a proposed tax increase for residents making more than $350,000 a year Wednesday while initially approving next fiscal year's budget, which expands sales taxes to soda drinks but avoids raising parking meter fees to as much as $3 an hour. The income tax increase, proposed by Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, would have raised the income taxes for wealthy residents from 8.5 percent to 8.9 percent. The measure, which failed 8-5, received vocal support from a number of social service groups present at the council hearing. Graham said the measure would raise $77 million over four years and would be 'paid for by those who can most afford to pay this.' The extra revenue would have been used to pay for services such as assistance for the disabled and grandparents raising children. Mayor Adrian Fenty proposed a number of cuts to social services as part of his effort to bridge a more than $500 million budget gap. But opponents of the tax increase said it would lead to the 4,000 residents who would be hit with the tax to simply change their primary residences to their second homes in more tax-friendly states."
In a WBJ story on the taxes, Councilmember Yvette Alexander explains why she voted against the tax increase: “Let’s be fair. You can’t just depend on the resources of a few for the masses. You just can’t do that.” A real profile in courage. And a complete misreading of the tax-increase proposal. The proposal would have actually leveled the playing field since the tax rate currently places too much burden on middle-class and lower-middle-class earners. More coverage via DCist, D.C. Wire, WJLA.
The D.C. Council may have settled on something more sensible—and something all residents could get behind—the commuter tax. Too bad it will never happen. WBJ's Michael Neibauer writes: "The budget also includes a tax on the incomes of D.C. government employees who live outside the city and are paid with local revenues. If enacted, the tax would generate upward of $105 million, said Councilman Harry Thomas Jr., D-Ward 5. But because the Home Rule Charter bars the District from taxing the incomes of people who work in D.C. but live elsewhere, the change will require Congressional approval — and that’s very unlikely."
SODA TAX: Who's sick of the soda tax? It passed.
4 p.m. Remarks: Demolition for new Minn Ave/Benning Road Development
Location: 4004 Minnesota Avenue NE