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District subsidizes H-Street partiers

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 19, 2009; A17

The H Street shuttle is a D.C. Council budget earmark worthy of review in light of the city's projected multi-million-dollar budget shortfall. It's also a compelling example of how District politicians cater to narrow interests even when the spending contributes, albeit unintentionally, to this city's racial and class divide.

First, two stipulations. I understand why owners of new restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues along the H Street corridor in Northeast worry that the city's two-year streetscaping project might hit them hard where it hurts the most -- the bottom line.

Second, I would be sorry to see a slowdown in the H Street corridor's return to glory. Some of the King family's happiest moments were spent participating in the H Street Halloween Day parades in the late '40s. Crowds of costumed children filling sidewalks for blocks, smiling merchants, confetti flying everywhere. It was great fun.

So bring on the H Street renaissance, the theaters, clubs and sushi happy hours. And cheers to risk-taking entrepreneurs trying to bring nightlife back to a part of the city that needs an economic shot in the arm.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, accountability for the risks inherent in private ventures has been assumed by taxpayers citywide. It comes in the form of the H Street shuttle, a privately operated, D.C. taxpayer-financed nightly bus service that is free to patrons who want to party hardy and do high-end dining in a resurgent neighborhood.

But is a free bus service really necessary?

The H Street corridor is not an island, cut off from the world. Parking is available in the neighborhood. And the Metrobus is convenient to H Street fun spots.

The X2 runs along H Street from Lafayette Park near the White House to Minnesota Avenue NE. And the X8 runs along Maryland Avenue from Union Station: Get off at 13th Street NE and walk only two blocks to H Street.

Access to H Street by Metrobus may not be the problem, however. There seems to be a perception that some of Metrobus's X2 clientele can be, shall we say, a little rough around the edges. "It ain't the bus, it's us," is the way one civil rights activist described opposition to school busing.

The H Street Business Cooperative, which operates the shuttle system, makes it plain in an online promotion that it wants the private bus to serve patrons, "from different areas of the city and the surrounding regions."

"Without the shuttle," an H Street bar owner complained in a statement to dcist.com, "we are really isolated."

"Isolated"? From what? Never mind.

The whole point of the free, private bus service is to make it easier for people wishing to sing a little karaoke, throw down a few beers, dance and socialize with folks of similar tastes to do so without having to deal with any unpleasantness that comes with the surrounding territory.

Hence, the entrepreneurs turned to Ward 6 D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who represents the rapidly gentrifying H Street area.

Wells, in turn, tapped the D.C. treasury. I know because D.C. Transportation Department spokesman John Lisle told me so last week.

Lisle said in an e-mail that the H Street shuttle "was initiated via a council earmark." Its purpose, he said, was to mitigate the impact of construction along H Street NE and "to support the growing business and entertainment community in the corridor."

Wells confirmed this in an e-mail. He said that he "requested an earmark on the FY09 budget for an H Street shuttle" that runs from the "Gallery Place Metro stop." The shuttle, he said, was a measure to mitigate the impact of tearing up H Street for so long.

The earmark provided $190,000 to operate the shuttle. The money ran out, however, and the Transportation Department announced the shuttle's shutdown this month.

Enter Wells and the merchants once again.

"A bus for us," they cried. (They didn't really say that.)

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, seeking reelection next year, heard their plea, and with visions of contributions and votes floating in his head, found $238,000 of public bucks that the Transportation Department's Lisle told me the city will shell out to keep busing H Street patrons free of charge from downtown at taxpayers expense.

Hush, King. Those entrepreneurs are contributing taxes. Give them a break, you say.

Wells touted another measure he took on behalf of business owners. It was, he said, "to grant a delay in paying property taxes along the corridor."

Home rule 2009: Thems with clout, rule.

kingc@washpost.com

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