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Last night, District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein got a letter delivered to his office at the Reeves Center on U Street. The contents weren’t entirely unexpected: He had been getting “inklings” over the last few months that he wouldn’t be asked to stay on in the administration of mayor-elect Vince Gray.
Actually, the two haven’t talked for the last three months. Although Klein says they once worked closely together on projects like the 11th Street bridge, communication largely ceased after the “kerfuffle” over streetcar funding back in May.
And even now, Klein isn’t sure that he would have stayed even if Gray had asked him to.
“My palms were sweating yesterday as I was walking around the Wilson Building,” he said in his office this morning, in a wide-ranging discussion with reporters. “And it wasn’t because I thought I was going to leave, it was because I thought they were going to ask me to stay, and I didn’t know what my answer would be.”
Why? Because at that very moment, the Council was hashing out the final gap-closing budget measures. One of the things they cut was DDOT’s “unified fund,” which isn’t just a pot of money: As funding that DDOT generates and gets to keep for its own priorities, it’s allowed the agency to be more flexible and function much more like a private business in its operations than other bureaucracies within District government. Effective yesterday, all the revenue DDOT generates from things like meters, permits, and fees will go straight into the city’s general fund, and doled back out to DDOT at the Council’s discretion.
“Getting rid of our unified fund really will fundamentally change the way this agency works, from an entrepreneurial agency to a sort of standard traditional government agency, with more central decisionmaking downtown, and probably more administration at my level,” Klein said. “I prided myself on my creativity, my ability to build a great team and execute projects. It’s probably not a good fit going forward. You know, it’s just a matter of philosophy.”
Having that kind of budget discretion, along with Mayor Adrian Fenty‘s entrepreneurial spirit, was a big part of what had lured Klein to the directorship in the first place.
“If you could come to the table with a great idea that will make the city better, and fiscally responsible, with benchmarks and data to show that it would work, you had a really good shot that it would happen,” he said.
Klein tried to allay concerns that bike lanes would be painted over and the streetcar brought to a screeching halt. Even as the unified fund was being cut, funding for the H Street-Benning Streetcar was approved, and he hasn’t heard anything that would indicate that the Gray administration wouldn’t continue to build on the success of Capital Bikeshare (which he sees as his biggest legacy).
“I firmly believe that once that line is operational,” he said, “that stake’s in the ground for the streetcar, and the rest will happen.”
But he did recognize that the breakneck pace at which he and Fenty made change was at times divisive, and focused criticism on himself. I asked him why debate over things like streetcars and bike lanes had gotten so acrimonious.
“Some of this is played up in the media. People act like I sit around and draw bike lanes all day,” he said with a wry smile. “But there are some divides in the city, and I think it’s foolish to ignore them. I think they’re based on geography, topography, I think we have some surburban neighborhoods, and some very dense urban neighborhoods.”
“People talk about a racial divide,” he went on. “I have to tell you, I have so many friends and supporters in Wards 7 and 8. I’m much more aware of a age divide. And I’m not going to claim to know what it’s about. But whether it’s older, white folks from Ward 3, or older black folks in Ward 5, there’s certain people that don’t agree with some of the changes that we’re looking at.”
Klein didn’t say where he’d be doing next—he just learned he would be out of a job yesterday, after all. But he could see himself working in government again sometime.
“This is the best job I have ever had,” he said, firmly.