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Gray Speaks On Streetcar Funding, Congestion Charges And A Yoga Tax

Mayor Vincent Gray: Not happy about streetcar funding cuts, but in favor of a congestion charge for downtown D.C.
(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Mayor Vincent Gray: Not happy about streetcar funding cuts, but in favor of a congestion charge for downtown D.C.

At Wednesday's biweekly press conference with Mayor Vincent Gray, the big news was Wilson High School Principal Pete Cahall, who came out at an LGBTQ Pride Day event held for students. Gray also took the opportunity to offer his thoughts on a number of current issues, from streetcar funding to congestion charges and a possible tax on yoga classes and gym memberships.

Streetcar Funding

Last week the D.C. Council cut funding for a proposed 22-mile streetcar network, changing a funding formula so that it gets some $400 million over the next six years, less than the $800 million Gray had requested. Legislators said the D.C. Department of Transportation was not properly managing the first line on H Street and Benning Road NE, and that it would not be able to handle an influx of capital funds for the rest of planned network.

Gray sounded a pessimistic note about the funding cut, saying it could potentially imperil the future of lines crossing from H Street to Georgetown and Buzzard Point to Takoma.

"I heartily support streetcars. We believed we had the funding in there to be able to fulfill the promises that has been made. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the money has been put somewhere else... it potentially imperils the future of streetcars in the city, which I think would just be a huge setback for the District of Columbia. We need transportation alternatives, with a growing population," he said.

A Downtown Congestion Charge?

A draft transportation plan released last week proposed implementing a London-style congestion charge for motorists entering downtown D.C. Gray defended the idea, saying that it would help the city maintain roads that are largely used by commuters living outside D.C.

"We have to maintain these streets, and if you look at it, our population is now around 650,000 people who live in the city, but it doubles during the daytime to around 1.2 or 1.3 million people, which means that a lot of those people who increasing the numbers daily don't live here. And those streets have to maintained. People will complain about potholes, they'll complain about street maintenance, they even complain about the work being done," he said.

"Frankly, it's a way of us being able to have the revenue that's necessary to be able to ensure that the streets will be maintained well in the District of Columbia. Hopefully it will discourage some people from driving in, they will take the Metro or take the bus in," he added.

"I think there will probably be resistance to it, and there will probably be some who try to portray this as a commuter tax. I think we can make a very strong case for the fact that, like anybody else, we deserve to be able to generate the revenues to maintain the streets for the people who use them," he added.

School Boundary Changes

Over the last year, a committee has been considering possible changes to the boundaries and feeder patterns that help determine what public schools different students attend. A first set of proposals was released in April, and a second set is expected next week. Mayoral contenders Muriel Bowser and David Catania have called for the process to be put on hold, a call that Gray rejected.

"This is a process that hasn't been undertaken in any kind of systematic or comprehensive way in over 40 years, 45 to 50 years in this city, so it's long overdue," he said.

"I don't have any reason to push the pause button. We're going to continue on with this. We'll continue to get feedback. We thought it was an important project... we continue to feel strongly about that. If we see along the way that there continues to be legitimate unrest — I don't think there will be complete comfort about this, because it's change, and people just simply don't like change. Even some of the most modest change is resisted, and something of this enormity, there's going to be resistance of one kind or another," he added.

"We don't intend to push the pause button at all, we're going to continue to forge on with all deliberate speed," he said.

A Tax On Yoga Classes?

As part of the 2015 budget passed on a first vote last week by the D.C. Council, yoga classes and gym memberships (among other services like home water delivery and bowling alleys) will be subjected to the city's 5.75 percent sales tax. Though part of a broader tax code reform proposed by the D.C. Tax Revision Commission, Gray said he opposed what has come to be known as the "yoga tax."

"This has come up before, and I was against it then and I am against it now. Why would we want to discourage people from dealing with fitness challenges? It seems to me that we'd want to incentivize people to do what they're doing," he said.

"Imagine the health care costs that are saved as a result of people doing this. So, we collect a few dollars on a tax, and then how much have we lost because people are not as fit as they otherwise might be because they may not go? We talk ad nauseam about the problem of obesity in our society, and yet this to me disincentivizes people from people from addressing the possibility of becoming obese or being able to eliminate the problem for themselves," he added.

Opposition is mounting to the tax, though D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson has said that it won't likely be removed during a second vote on the budget set for June 17.

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