Gray reverses course to back D.C. streetcars after late-night budget maneuver

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 27, 2010; B01

It was midnight Tuesday, and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray had it all figured out. To help close a projected $550 million budget gap, he would take an ax to the city's plan to build a new streetcar system -- one of his mayoral rival's pet projects.

But hours later -- after a backlash from at least one member of Congress and hundreds of residents who jammed government phone lines, community e-mail groups and Gray's Web site -- the late-night maneuver had been scrapped. By midday Wednesday, Gray was back at the council dais, telling his colleagues that he and city finance officials had found $50 million to keep the streetcar program on track.

The saga of the streetcars is emblematic of one of the central tensions between the campaigns of Gray and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as well as the voters they're targeting. Fenty has been criticized for favoring newcomers over more established Washingtonians and for using scarce resources to build dog parks, recreation centers and streetcar lines instead of bolstering more traditional social services.

Gray has sought to capitalize on that sentiment by establishing himself as a champion of those who feel left out, but he must do so without turning off voters who value the new services.

In the days leading up to Wednesday's budget vote, Gray had sought to navigate political land mines surrounding proposals to establish a soda tax, increase taxes on the wealthy and restore millions in proposed cuts to social service programs.

Touting himself as the candidate in the September Democratic primary who can unite the city, Gray tried to fashion an election-year budget that would keep him from making enemies in a city often divided by class and race.

"This council deserves credit for what we've done, because it's a far cry better than what we got" from Fenty, Gray said.

Gray insists he only wanted to delay the streetcar project for one year to allow for more planning, which he said would result in savings for taxpayers. But the fact he was forced to change course so quickly demonstrates how the political culture is changing in the city.

"We don't know how that could happen in the dead of night, especially after [Gray] had been supportive in recent weeks and in the past," said Jason Broehm, chairman of the transportation committee of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, who supports the streetcar plan. "It's really disappointing to see how this all unfolded, backroom deals that no one had a chance to react to."

A city divided

However, winning approval of the city's 2011 budget Wednesday represents Gray's efforts to transition from legislator in chief to a mayoral candidate in a city divided over how to spend a shrinking pool of city revenue.

For instance, after nutrition advocates were disappointed that the council would not support a plan by member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to enact a 1 cent-per-ounce tax on soda, Gray agreed to extend the city's 6 cent sales tax to sweetened drinks. He also spent hours restoring millions in cuts made by Fenty to social programs. However, Gray, who is to be endorsed Thursday by the firefighters and police unions, opposed raising the income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 8.9 percent for residents who make $350,000 or more a year.

"I think he has done as well as you can with this [budget] mess," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

Yet Gray's push to be the consensus builder collapsed when he decided to cut the streetcars, underscoring the growing clout of smart-growth advocates and residents in gentrifying areas of the city. "The constituency that supports the next generation of transit reacted immediately," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Fenty says the streetcars are needed to create a "world-class city." He has also spent tens of millions of dollars on dog parks, athletic fields and bicycle lanes that his critics say are largely aimed at the city's wealthiest residents.

When city Transportation Director Gabe Klein learned of Gray's budget cut Wednesday, he accused the chairman of "essentially killing" the streetcar project. "This is a generational reinvestment that [Fenty] identified funding for and is bigger than plugging a one-time hole in the budget," Klein said. "When times are tough, it is that much more important to stay true to our revitalization plans, taking a long-term view, so when the economy rebounds, D.C. is as competitive as it can be."

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has championed streetcar systems around the world, said he called council members, although he declined to identify whom. "We're working with a dozen cities that are in some stage of streetcar programs. None has more promise than the District of Columbia," he said.

The proposed system, which has been a top Fenty priority, is designed to extend for 37 miles and touch most wards in the city when completed in 2030.

The first leg, set to open late next year, will run down H Street and Benning Road. Tracks are finished on some portions of H Street in Ward 6, which includes Chinatown, Capitol Hill and Union Station.

Gray has long been suspicious of whether the city's plan for a $1.5 billion system has been well considered. In defending his initial decision Wednesday, he said it's unclear where the H Street line will end, whether it will use an above- or below-ground power source and how it will connect to future lines.

Instead of fully funding a program he thinks is not ready for prime time, Gray diverted the money to dozens of other projects, including new playgrounds and dog parks, renovations to fire stations and schools, and a Boys & Girls Club.

"Streetcars aren't scheduled for completion until 2030, and over the next year, we'll do the kind of planning that's necessary to give us the most efficient use of our dollars," Gray said.

Impact on campaign

Campaign strategists view the demographically diverse Ward 6 as a toss-up in the September primary, with the neighborhoods near Eastern Market leaning toward Fenty and the more heavily African American sections farther north and east favoring Gray.

To many residents in the gentrifying H Street corridor, the streetcar is a catalyst for revitalizing the long-neglected area, which was devastated during the 1960s race riots but is now a popular spot for sushi and indoor mini-golf.

"What you have done has threatened our community and the livelihood of many taxpaying D.C. residents," Angie Montes Truesdale wrote to Gray, describing her decision to buy her first home nearby last year. "You have lost my vote for mayor."

Gray left the council chamber about 2 p.m. Wednesday during a break. He huddled with officials from the chief financial officer's office to try to find the money to restore the streetcar funding.

Gray and finance officials agreed to borrow most of the money to keep the program viable, which will push the city even closer to its self-imposed 12 percent debt cap. The deal calls for the council to approve a comprehensive plan for where future streetcar lines will be built over the next two decades.

Although most council members embraced Gray's proposal, some questioned how city money that was scarce in the morning had become plentiful by afternoon for a project that many residents east of the Anacostia River view skeptically.

"We were told just days before there was no money," said council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). "I've been begging for money."

It was unclear whether Gray's reversal will cost him votes. Kristen Fauson, a graduate student at Georgetown University who lives a half-block from the planned H Street line, said she views the streetcar debate as a "cornerstone issue" in the election.

Fauson had been considering Gray's candidacy but said she was turned off by the late-night deal-making. "That's politics as usual," she said.

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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