Enjoy those free Circulator rides while you can.
The D.C. Council on Tuesday cut Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s request for $3.1 million from the fiscal 2020 budget, killing the mayor’s plan to keep Circulator rides free indefinitely.
While the free-ride funding was eliminated from the $15.5 billion spending plan, the budget does include money for a scooter parking program and a congestion-pricing study. It also increases residential parking fees. The budget, for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, will get a second, and final, vote on May 28.
Bowser Chief of Staff John Falcicchio said the mayor hopes the council will reconsider the Circulator fare decision before the second vote.
“We really do hope that between this first reading and second reading the council will find a way to fund this widely popular program,” Falcicchio said, noting an increase in ridership since rides became free in February. “It is a priority for the mayor and a priority for the folks who ride it.”
The council also nixed Bowser’s (D) request to transfer the city’s automated traffic enforcement program — which deploys speed-, red-light and stop-sign cameras — from D.C. police to the District Department of Transportation. The Bowser administration had argued that giving DDOT control of the system, which issues hundreds of thousands of citations, could help reduce the time it takes to process tickets and expedite the deployment of additional traffic enforcement cameras.
Council members said it wasn’t clear the transfer would increase the program’s efficiency. They also were concerned about short-term inefficiencies that might be caused by the transfer, and they questioned whether tickets issued by DDOT would carry the same significance for drivers as those issued by police.
Some council members said the proposal also raised a “number of questions and concerns” that they want addressed separately from the budget. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the panel’s transportation committee, said she expects the group to review the proposal as separate legislation this year. But, she said, she is not convinced that moving the program to DDOT is the best choice.
“The fact of the matter is that moving violations involve law enforcement functions — you get your ticket from [D.C. police], not DDOT, and moving that program away from [police] might reduce the program’s overall effectiveness,” Cheh said.
This is not the first time the city has proposed the transfer and the council has denied it.
“Each year we propose it and we tell our partners on the council that we want to make this move because we think it will enhance safety on the road. But each year, they say we should have a broader discussion about it,” Falcicchio said. “Our hope would be that we do have that broader discussion.”
In another blow to the mayor, the council’s capital budget delays funding for the K Street Transitway, a $122-million redesign of K Street NW into a more transit-friendly boulevard with bus lanes. Bowser, who announced the funding earlier this year, had said the project would be completed in 2025.
The council’s capital budget begins funding for the project in 2021 instead of 2020 as Bowser proposed in the six-year capital plan. The change is likely to delay the start of construction by at least a year, and city officials say they fear the delay could result in higher construction costs.
The council also included $23 million in the capital budget for the construction of a pedestrian tunnel under the Amtrak tracks in NoMa, which would make it possible to build an eastern entrance to the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station. The new entrance would reduce the walk from the station to Union Market by about two-tenths of a mile, according to the council. A 2015 Metro study of the project determined that construction of a tunnel beneath the railroad tracks is feasible and would provide a safe and more direct route to Gallaudet, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Other transportation-related items in the council’s $15.5 billion spending plan include $115,000 for a dockless-scooter parking program aimed at improving access and use of public space, and nearly $500,000 to study the District’s options for implementing congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing, charging motorists a fee to enter congested areas, is gaining momentum in U.S. cities. New York recently approved congestion pricing for drivers entering the central business district of Manhattan, beginning in 2021. The money would be used to fix the city’s ailing subway. Several other cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, also are considering congestion pricing as a way to alleviate gridlock, take cars off the roads and encourage transit use.
District officials hope the study will analyze how the city could implement congestion pricing to help reduce the number of non-D.C. drivers on city streets, identify pricing strategies and address equity concerns.
The council also approved higher fees for residential parking permits, a proposal that was hotly debated by the panel. Supporters said raising the price of the permits would put D.C. permits on par with the cost of its neighbors. But critics cited concerns about the financial impact on households that own multiple vehicles.
Residents now pay $35 per vehicle for an annual permit. Under the new budget, the cost will increase to $50 for the first vehicle, $75 for a second vehicle, $100 for a third vehicle, and $150 for the fourth. That means a household with four cars would pay $375 annually instead of $140.
In Arlington County, residential permits are $20 for the first vehicle but jump to $250 for a fourth one. In Alexandria, it is $40 for the first vehicle, but the price jumps to $150 for a third, according to data from the D.C. Council.
Bowser was not consulted about the fee increase, Falcicchio said. He said the mayor has concerns about raising the fees, though he acknowledged the increase could have long-term benefits in reducing the number of cars per household.
But he criticized the council as being quick to adopt new fees while refusing to give residents a break by keeping the Circulator free.
“When we talk about Circulator and we talk about keeping money in people’s pockets, the council decided to study it. Then when we talk about taking money out of people’s pockets, the council wants to move quickly on it,” he said.
On the D.C. Circulator, the Committee on Transportation and the Environment had recommended against keeping the system free, citing concerns about the impact the free service would have on other transit options. Council members also questioned Bowser’s logic that the free rides help the city’s working-class residents.
The bus system has only six routes and is popular among tourists as well as those who live and work downtown and in some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Bowser officials issued new ridership numbers last week, showing a sizable increase since the city introduced the free fares as a pilot program in February. In April, nearly 150,000 more passengers rode the Circulator, a 37 percent increase compared with April 2018, according to data released by Bowser’s office.