Staff Editorial: Amid good budget choices, council was too rushed on streetcar cuts

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

When education advocates pointed out inadequate education funding in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget, we were resigned to the idea that planned tax cuts would need to be sacrificed to fund our schools. Although we support the idea that some tax relief is valuable, it would be inappropriate for the school budget to lag behind inflation.

We’re impressed now, though, that the D.C. Council managed to accomplish both goals. Under a $13.8 billion operating budget preliminarily adopted last week, the city’s education spending will rise by 3 percent from the current fiscal year, double the mayor’s original proposal. And this year’s anticipated suite of tax cuts — carefully selected by a panel of experts, and designated by city officials several years ago to kick in automatically when the District’s reserves reached certain levels — will continue as planned.

The tax cuts include divisive reductions that benefit businesses and wealthy individuals, making them obvious targets for the council’s progressives. We’re glad that Chairman Phil Mendelson recognized the value of maintaining long-promised relief for these residents and businesses within the District — rather than encouraging them to take their tax dollars elsewhere. Meanwhile, other tax cuts will more directly benefit a wide range of District residents.

The Bowser administration has signaled displeasure with the council’s decision to shift money from some agencies’ budgets — including the Metropolitan Police Department’s — in order to increase school funding without imperiling tax relief. While each individual change seems modest to us, and the goal seems worthy, the council certainly must ensure that public safety is adequately funded. Legislators have until June 13 to make further changes, when they’ll take their second and final vote on the budget.

We’d also like the council to reconsider a change to the capital budget: the drastic cuts now proposed to the expansion of the D.C. streetcar system. The mayor had requested $161 million over the next six years for planning and construction of the streetcar, with the goal of extending service beyond one little stretch of H Street NE eastward across the Anacostia River and westward through downtown into Georgetown. Chairman Mendelson issued his revised budget just hours before the council’s vote and stripped more than a third of that funding. That included all the money the mayor had requested in the next two fiscal years, and most of what she had sought for the two years after that.

We’ve certainly expressed skepticism about the streetcar idea. Its initial long-delayed iteration on H Street has proved costly to build, disruptive to traffic and parking, and unable to adjust to anything blocking its tracks. That said, we are receptive to the idea that prominent transit investments can spark economic development, and believe it’s valuable to present riders with transit alternatives to Metro.

Given the depth of this broad transit topic — and the significant resources already expended to plan the streetcar’s expansion — we oppose Chairman Mendelson’s decision to unilaterally push off work on the streetcar. We’re uncomfortable on principle with sweeping, last-minute changes that don’t allow time for public discussion and a full airing of the facts, something we’ve seen repeatedly from council chairs.

We’d like the council to restore some planning money for the streetcar this year, and then to ensure that the project is given a fair, thorough review in future budget seasons.