If the D.C. Council’s proposed changes to streetcar funding are allowed to stand, the 22-mile priority streetcar system won’t be completed until 2045 and will cost 50 percent more than under the current plan, Mayor Vince Gray says in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson explaining his veto of the Council’s budget.
Gray has vetoed the entirety of the Budget Support Act and three line items of the Budget Request Act, citing a number of concerns. These range from the defunding of a property tax relief measure for seniors introduced by At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, a new tax on yoga and other fitness activities, and new restrictions on the city’s use of contingency funds. But in his letter to Mendelson, Gray devotes the most space to the streetcar component.
Mendelson and other members of the Council have justified the streetcar funding change—-which would alter the mechanism for streetcar funding and result in hundreds of millions of dollars less funding for the network—-as necessary for budget sustainability, arguing that the current formula would steadily increase funding to the point that it would cut into other spending. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, in turn, compared Mendelson to the right-wing bankrollers David and Charles Koch for cutting public-transit funding in order to lower taxes.
Now Gray is letting his veto pen do the talking. But the Council is likely to vote Monday to override the veto. The necessary two-thirds majority should be easy to achieve, given that the budget passed by a 12-1 vote, with just Ward 6’s Tommy Wells voting no.
In his letter to Mendelson, Gray backs up some of the claims his office has made about the effects of the streetcar cuts. “If the Council’s cuts to the streetcar system stand, our independent consultants have concluded that the 22-mile system will not be built out for 31 years (or 2045),” Gray writes. “This is primarily because the District will be unable to attract a firm with the necessary experience and expertise to take on building the project in a piecemeal fashion and on such an extended timeframe.”
Gray says the consultants have also concluded that the funding cuts would boost the total cost of the network from $1.3 billion to at least $2 billion due to the longer timeline, and that the city would miss out on the revenue that would have been generated by the economic development associated with the transit network in the interim.
“We need to invest now in a public transit system that meets the future needs of our growing city,” he writes. “If we wait to start building a true streetcar system until after the District’s streets are gridlocked, it will be too late.”
Map from Gray’s letter