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D.C. Streetcar Faces Funding Cuts, Prompting Warnings From Gray

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At some point this year, a streetcar will run along H Street and Benning Road NE.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
At some point this year, a streetcar will run along H Street and Benning Road NE.

This post has been updated

D.C.'s planned streetcar system might have less money than expected for future construction, prompting warnings from Mayor Vincent Gray that lines could be delayed and cost more than expected.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced yesterday that he was proposing cutting the capital funds set aside by Gray for streetcars over the next six years, decreasing the amount from $800 million Gray put in his 2015 budget to $400 million.

In justifying the decrease, Mendelson said that the D.C. Department of Transportation has not been spending the amount available to it on existing streetcar construction, primarily the 2.5-mile-long route on H Street and Benning Road NE and a short segment in Anacostia. According to him, DDOT has been given $214 million for streetcar-related work since 2006, but has only spent $109 million of it.

Mendelson also said that the funding mechanism for the streetcar funding — a percentage of the cash the comes from future revenue increases — concerned him. Gray wants to set aside 25 percent of all future annual revenue increases, using the 2015 fiscal year as a baseline. Mendelson is instead proposing that the percentage come from growth relative to the previous year, and not use 2015 as a baseline.

Under Mendelson's plan, DDOT would get between $45 and $65 million per year for the operation streetcars, or $400 million over six years. The additional funds would go to pay for a bevy of changes to the city's tax code proposed by the D.C. Tax Revision Commission.

"The Council, while supportive of the Streetcar initiative, remains concerned about the amount of funding being diverted from the operating budget to pay for the system. Setting aside such a large portion of operating funds prevents implementation of other worthy programs and initiatives," said Mendelson's budget recommendation, which will be debated today.

Mendelson's move drew swift condemnation from Gray's administration, which said that the cuts to Gray's proposed $800 million in capital funds could spell trouble for the proposed 37-mile system.

"You can't eliminate almost 78 percent of funding for a project and expect it to continue," said Pedro Ribeiro. He said that the proposed cuts could increase costs by 50 percent and delay the completion of an initial 22-mile system by 29 years.

"You've got to pay upfront for the work," said Ribeiro, arguing that if the cuts go through, DDOT would not be able to enter into necessary contracts for planning and construction on future lines, including a nine-mile route from Buzzard Point to Takoma and a connection from H Street to Georgetown.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Council's transportation committee and supports streetcars, said she had spoken to Mendelson and dismissed Gray's warnings. "I don't think this puts us on the path to ending the streetcar," she said.

She expressed concerns with DDOT's ability to manage the massive project, and worried that more money wouldn't help an agency that she said had trouble spending what it had already been given. Still, she said she would make clear during today's debate that the streetcar plans should remain on track.

"I do have concerns about this perhaps being... a subterfuge for ending the streetcar or changing the program," she said. "Maybe people want to do that... but it shouldn't be through a budgetary move."

This isn't the first spat over funding for the streetcars. In 2010, then-Council chair Gray cut funding for the H Street line, though it was restored after an outcry from supporters of the trolleys.

Ribeiro lambasted Mendelson for shifting the money from streetcars to tax code changes.

"They're going to find tax cuts for the wealthiest while cutting public transit, which is used by low- and middle-income residents," he said.

Cheh cautioned that any money cut this year could be reinstated in the coming years by a future mayor. "We could re-commit what's needed," she said.

Mendelson also included $187 million for the replacement of the Hopscotch Bridge, which will have to be fully replaced within five years. The H Street streetcar runs over the bridge to connect to Union Station.

The Council debate on the 2015 budget kicks off at noon.

Update, 12:30 p.m.: Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has come out against Mendelson's proposal:

Update, 3:45 p.m.: Meeting in committee, the D.C. Council voted to approve the 2015 budget — with the changes to the streetcar funding Mendelson had proposed. The only dissenting votes came from Wells and Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Cheh and Mendelson expressed their commitment to the streetcar program, but Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro criticized the move. "There is not enough money to continue the streetcar program as proposed," he said. A second and final vote is upcoming this afternoon, after which the budget goes back to Gray.

Update, 4:20 p.m.: Gray's office has gone visual with its frustration with the Council's vote, releasing the map below. On the left is what they say the streetcar system will look like with the full $800 million worth of funding. It's 22 miles, connecting H Street to Georgetown and Anacostia to Takoma. On the right is the version with Mendelson's $400 million. It's much shorter — only the H Street and Benning Road NE line, along with a short segment in Anacostia.

Update, 4:30 p.m.: The Council has voted in favor of the the 2015 budget. A second and final vote is set for next month.


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