Council adds education funding, strips money from streetcar

The streetcar currently runs only in a small stretch of Northeast. (photo courtesy of the D.C. Department of Transportation)

This year’s budget process was less heated than in previous years, D.C. Council members agree. But big points of contention still arose before the council approved the fiscal year 2018 budget last Tuesday, including a dispute over tax cuts and the last-minute defunding of a Ward 2 streetcar extension.

The council’s unanimously approved budget plan goes through a mandated second vote on June 13.

The most vigorous fight last week concerned the tax cuts set to take effect next January for businesses and estates. At-large Council member David Grosso sought to delay those cuts in favor of more funding for schools, early childhood facilities and rapid re-housing for recently released prisoners. At-large member Elissa Silverman and Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau voted in favor of his amendment, while Ward 8 Council member Trayon White supported delaying the estate tax cut only. But without broader support, Grosso’s efforts failed.

Still, for schools, the council’s approved budget reflects a notable bump from the mayor’s originally proposed 1.5 percent increase for the annual per-pupil funding for D.C. Public Schools. Advocacy groups had called for an increase of between 2 and 4 percent; the council ultimately settled on 3.

Grosso told The Current, though, that he’d hoped the tax cut delay would allow for a 3.5 percent increase, in line with an initial recommendation from D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

“I was hoping to get to the recommended line, but my colleagues obviously didn’t support me,” Grosso said.

Jennie Niles, deputy mayor for education, told The Current that the council’s decision to raise the per-pupil funding formula increase to 3 percent means that other proposed programs, including a job training initiative in Ward 8, will go underfunded.

“I certainly think that you’re wise to invest in education,” Niles said in an interview. “What’s too bad is that there were a number of other things that would also help the communities.”

Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who had supported the mayor’s proposed 1.5 percent increase, maintains his concern that the funds aren’t having the positive effect on the public school system that he believes they should.

“Now that we’ve given more than a 2 percent increase, next year I expect to see some results,” Evans said in an interview. “If next year the performance results are the same, then you have to explain to me what you’re doing.”

One surprise in D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s final budget document was the removal of $60.7 million from the D.C. streetcar program, including a $6 million cut to designing a planned westward expansion beyond the current H Street NE track, from Union Station to Georgetown. That project may yet see the light of the day, but Mendelson reduced funding for the time being.

A fully funded environmental assessment on the streetcar extension into Ward 2 will be completed by mid-2018, according to D.C. Department of Transportation spokesperson Terry Owens, who wrote in an email that the agency has been “encouraged by the positive community engagement.”

“The timeline will depend on both local funding and the availability of federal discretionary funding through the Federal Transit Administration,” Owens wrote. “The Environmental Assessment is underway, but there is no firm timeline for construction.”

The original streetcar was much-ballyhooed and long-delayed but finally opened for business last year.

The streetcar would terminate under the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2016)

Despite arguments that it contributed to improved commercial prospects along the once-dormant H Street corridor, the line has yet to meet or exceed ridership expectations. But the D.C. Department of Transportation pressed forward last year with preliminary designs for a 3.5-mile extension along the K Street corridor, terminating in Georgetown under the Whitehurst Freeway.

Some in the community were optimistic that the extension would retroactively justify the initial leg of the streetcar. But others, like Evans, were vocally skeptical that the city could or should find funds for it, especially at the expense of existing transportation systems like Metro. Mendelson ultimately sided with the opposition.

“I can only tell you what I hear from residents. They are extremely unhappy and displeased with the government having spent money on streetcars,” Mendelson said in an interview. “Nobody says to me, ‘H Street was horrible but [we] want you to build it to Georgetown.’”

In an online letter explaining his transportation budget last week, Mendelson called the original streetcar project “horribly botched.” Mendelson did maintain $100 million of Bowser’s proposed $160 million streetcar budget for extensions elsewhere, though some streetcar proponents including Ward 7 D.C. Council member Vincent Gray have argued that the chairman’s cuts jeopardize the portion of the line that would serve Gray’s area. Mendelson has refuted those claims, reaffirming his support for an extension to the Benning Road Metro stop over the next few years.

“I can’t tell you how many people would be happy if we just ripped it up and got rid of it,” Mendelson said of the existing line. “But that’s not my position.”

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, told The Current she wasn’t informed in advance of the streetcar defunding.

“I don’t think the final chapter has been written, but that was somewhat of a surprise to me and a disappointment,” Cheh said. “When we sent over our committee’s recommendations, that’s what we all voted on.”

She stressed that such last-minute budget decisions aren’t unusual, and that she agrees that Benning Road should be the focus for now.

“If we don’t have that extension, not only do we not get that economic development, we’re left with an H Street streetcar that’s more like a Disney ride,” Cheh said. “It has to be more extensive to increase its use.”

Aside from the citywide squabbles, Northwest council members touted ward-specific initiatives. New projects in Nadeau’s Ward 1 include a new Main Street program along lower Georgia Avenue, similar to existing groups in Tenleytown, Van Ness, Dupont Circle and Shaw; remediation and maintenance at LeDroit Park; and the addition of two staffers for the Ward 1 Clean Team.

In Ward 2, Evans highlighted $200,000 for preserving and documenting Mount Zion Cemetery in Georgetown, which is currently undergoing a community renovation project, and $200,000 for the creation of a Georgetown Main Street group.

Cheh of Ward 3 cheered the $850,000 allocation for three new full-time employees at the under-renovation Cleveland Park Library; $10,000 for additional metal detectors at Wilson High School; and a policy recommendation to study the feasibility of keeping one recreation center in each ward open on Sundays. The latter would address concerns from Guy Mason Recreation Center users who have expressed frustration at limited hours for pottery classes there.

The Chevy Chase Community Center is located at Connecticut Avenue and McKinley Street NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2017)

Cheh’s budget efforts also included $75,000 for a new full-time employee dealing with seniors’ needs at the Chevy Chase Community Center, 5601 Connecticut Ave. NW.

“I think that would go a long way to help seniors who come over and may feel that there’s not significant organization or planning for things that they may want to do,” Cheh said of the employee allocation. “I regard that as kind of an interim step until we get a new rec center.”

Discussions of a virtual senior wellness center in Ward 3, meanwhile, continue.

In Ward 4, Council member Brandon Todd pushed successfully for $3 million to build a recreation center attached to Shepherd Elementary School in fiscal year 2020, and $2 million to add a playground to the Petworth Recreation Center in fiscal year 2018.