D.C. Council’s Cheh gains early support for major overhaul of city transportation agencies


File: D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray watches D.C. Council member Mary Cheh hug the original streetcar as they welcome the second in a fleet of three electric trolley cars for H street in 2013. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

D.C. residents and visitors would have to deal with one agency instead of four for transportation issues including parking tickets, taxis, bike sharing and other problems under a new proposal that is likely to pass.

The measure by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the transportation committee, would dissolve the city’s embattled Taxicab Commission, reorganize four city departments, and give motorists and transit users one-stop agencies to deal with parking and ridership issues.

Council members Muriel Bow­ser (D-Ward 4), the Democratic nominee for mayor, and David A. Catania (I-At Large), who has filed to run for mayor as an independent, signed on as co-sponsors of the measure.

Coming a week after Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was defeated in his bid for a second term, the proposal is sure to become embroiled in election-year politics, potentially opening a new front for the mayor with the council, which on Monday gave his final budget proposal a cool reception.

On Tuesday, the head of the department that would most be affected by Cheh’s reorganization plan — the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) — announced that he would be among the first to leave Gray’s lame-duck administration.

Terry Bellamy’s departure appeared unrelated to Cheh’s plan, which caught officials in Gray’s administration and elsewhere by surprise.

Ron Linton, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, went as far as anyone in criticizing the plan, saying only that it remained unclear if the reorganization would result in better management of the city’s transportation services.

“They can organize it anyway they want,” Linton said, adding that if his job disappears, “We shall continue to do what we think is best for the riders between now and the end of our time.”

In presenting her plan to the council, Cheh said that the overhaul is needed because she has repeatedly encountered agencies making the same mistakes and suffering the same breakdowns in communications. At other times, she said, DDOT has failed to properly evaluate controversial changes to such things as the program for visitors’ parking passes.

Cheh said that another impetus is that Gray’s administration has lagged in organizing a planned citywide expansion of light-rail lines even as it has begun the process of hiring a firm to design, operate and maintain the proposed $800 million system. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the administration was reviewing Cheh’s proposal.

The two-term council member said she drafted the plan over the past month in consultation with some members of the administration of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as well as advocates for low-income residents and added that the proximity to the election was a coincidence.

“Whoever is going to be mayor, I have no pride of authorship,” Cheh said. “It needs to be done, so I’ll work with anybody to get it done.”

Her plan starts with moving disparate pieces of parking management — now spread across the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Public Works and DDOT — to a new Department of Parking Management.

That agency would be responsible for developing parking policy and for enforcement and adjudication of violations. Currently, DDOT decides where motorists can park, the Department of Public Works writes tickets for violations and the DMV adjudicates violations. The disconnect can make it almost impossible for motorists to effectively dispute tickets given because of incorrectly labeled signs or when there is other interagency confusion.

John B. Townsend II of AAA Mid-Atlantic praised the idea, saying it would bring “much-needed changes to the parking ticketing process in the District, which is nightmarish and horrendous.”

The new agency would also decide a new policy for visitor parking passes and, Cheh said, be responsible for an overdue block-by-block evaluation of parking rules to make sure the city is consistently enforcing laws.

Perhaps the most controversial element of Cheh’s plan would be the creation of a powerful District Transit Authority. It would absorb DDOT’s responsibility for local public-transit design and operation. It would also regulate for-hire vehicles, including taxis, and oversee Circulator buses, which the city manages through a contract with Metro.

Gray’s proposed $800 million, citywide expansion of streetcar service would fall under the jurisdiction of the District Transit Authority. In February, the administration put out a request for qualifications to design, operate and maintain the system, and it is planning to pick a firm to run the system by next year.

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, expressed concern that Cheh’s proposal might hamper the D.C. Department of Transportation’s ability to integrate the city’s various transportation modes. She said that because DDOT only recently came into existence, it might be better to give it more time to evolve and adjust its focus.

Cheh is planning a series of public hearings on the proposal throughout the summer and hopes for a vote on the plan in late September. If approved, it would be implemented over the following year, potentially establishing the new agencies by October 2015.

Lori Aratani contributed to this report.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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