Here’s what happened the last time a D.C. Council chairman moved to cut streetcar funding shortly before a final budget vote: an utter revolt, led by an loosely organized Internet-based group of transit advocates who bombarded then-Chairman Vincent C. Gray and his colleagues with passionate, often angry e-mails, phone calls and blog comments demanding that the funding be restored.
Within hours, it was.
Back in 2010, Gray’s budget plan would have drastically reduced funding for the first streetcar line, down H Street and Benning Road NE. Now he’s on the other side of the issue, pushing as mayor for a $3 billion funding commitment over the next decade. In his draft 2015 budget plan circulated Tuesday, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) proposes cutting more than $400 million from Gray’s request for a streetcar program over the next six years — a proposal that will “derail the future of streetcar,” according to a Gray administration spokesman.
Thus far, the response from streetcar advocates has been relatively measured. The blog Greater Greater Washington and its founder, David Alpert, have not issued the same sort of call to arms that derailed the proposed 2010 cuts. In a post Tuesday, written shortly after Mendelson announced his attention to use the streetcar funding to pay for a package of tax cuts, Alpert described the move in an even, just-the-facts tone without rendering judgment on whether the change is wise or not.
Several council staffers polled on Tuesday evening reported receiving very few phone calls or e-mails opposing the streetcar cuts, if any at all.
So, what’s different this time?
Alpert, reached Tuesday evening, said he has a level of trust with the council that may not have existed back in 2010. It matters, he said, that outspoken supporters of the streetcar, including Transportation Committee Chairman Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), do not believe the cuts threaten the long-term viability of the proposed system.
“The people on the council, who are supporting this change, insist they have every intention of continuing to fund the streetcar at the level necessary to build the streetcar,” Alpert said. “It’s a little bit difficult for us who are not professional budgeters to understand who is correct.” In 2010, he said, streetcar-supportive lawmakers were certain the cuts proposed then would essentially halt the plan’s progress.
Other things are different, too: While the 2010 cuts were publicized just hours before a scheduled vote, after being including in a report circulated well after midnight the night before, Mendelson announced his intentions at a news conference Tuesday morning. Also, note that Gray was in the early weeks of a hotly contested mayoral campaign at the time and was loath to be painted as a foe of progressive causes in his race against Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Now the political stakes for Gray, who will leave office in January, and Mendelson, who faces only token opposition in November, are somewhat lower.
That isn’t to say Alpert is wholly comfortable with the proposed cuts, particularly when he hears Mendelson cite the need to develop a comprehensive plan before moving forward with an expensive new system. “That’s not entirely realistic in terms of the way the government often operates,” Alpert said. “For projects to get done, there’s a little bit of a design-build sort of arrangement where you don’t have every single T crossed and I dotted before you begin. … If there’s not a lot of money available, then [the transportation department] might … might simply slow down or say, ‘We don’t have the budget to build it this year or make this progress.’ That would be my fear.”
And if the council cuts the funding now, Alpert said, it will be difficult to restore it later, particularly if the city’s economy takes a turn for the worse. But he said there is also a realization that “the streetcar is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important.” That echoes a sentiment found in the draft budget report released Tuesday night by Mendelson: “The Council, while supportive of the Streetcar initiative, remains concerned about the amount of funding being diverted from the operating budget to pay for the system. Setting aside such a large portion of operating funds prevents implementation of other worthy programs and initiatives.”