Metrobus K Street
Buses currently run slowly on K Street NW, which has become the site of a fight between the Council and the mayor on bus service. Credit: Alex Koma

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When Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen first unveiled plans last week to fund free Metrobus service by raiding $115 million from the K Street Transitway project, D.C.’s transit nerds were divided. But it took just one tweet from Mayor Muriel Bowser to bring them back together.

Make no mistake, most transportation advocates in the city would rather see the District government fund Allen’s new “Metro for D.C.” program and the $123 million effort to remake the major downtown drag. Allen’s legislation, which passed the Council unanimously last year, would make all Metrobus rides free inside the District and fund substantial service increases. But the K Street NW project had plenty of fans too, considering it would add bus priority lanes down the middle of the road alongside bike lanes and pedestrian-centric improvements. Choosing between them wasn’t exactly a palatable prospect for many, especially those who value frequent service above free service.

This dynamic seemed to set Bowser up for success. She’s no great fan of Allen’s proposal, and stood by as Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee axed the funding for it. Now she would get to rail against Allen’s plans as an assault on her efforts to revive downtown D.C. Bowser doesn’t always have the support of the urbanist set on these issues, but this split could’ve helped her pull away support from Allen’s coalition if she could successfully argue that nixing the K Street project would hurt bus service all over the city.

But a Saturday tweet announcing a rally to save the transitway quickly upended this delicate balancing act.

That’s because the tweet also happened to include a rendering of the K Street project with none of the promised bike lanes, and with an additional lane of car traffic beyond what the (theoretically) final designs showed last year. A follow-up post suggesting that the project would result in “better motorist experiences” only heightened suspicion that Bowser’s real interest here is speeding up traffic and meeting the demands of the car-centric, property-owning class. (Bowser’s deputies admitted as much when they raised the possibility of moving the bike lane from K Street to L Street in a Council hearing last month.) Suddenly, it started to look a lot more untenable for many activists in the transit world to defend Bowser’s plans.

“The project really has no champions now,” Alex Baca, the D.C. policy director for Greater Greater Washington (and a former City Paper staffer), tells Loose Lips. “How long can you have the GGWashs and the WABAs of the world saying ‘Yay, this project is great’ when you have stuff getting yanked out of it at the last minute? How can we even trust that the center lanes [for buses] would stay in the project at this point?”

Witness the journey Dan Malouff, a transportation planner and longtime Greater Greater Washington adviser, took on Twitter over the past week for an example of this shift. At first, he was a staunch critic of Allen’s proposal. Last Wednesday, he argued that it would “lock us into a bad status quo in order to pay for a short time of operating” more buses. But the more Bowser’s priorities came into view, he started to soften that stance. “It’s hard to imagine a less effective strategy from [Bowser] than appealing to ‘motorists’ here,” he wrote Monday. “Just an epic misread of politics outside her bubble.”

“We’re very supportive of the transitway project, but it really needs to be re-thought,” says Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit focused on boosting public transit and transit-oriented development. Cort notes that Allen’s budget proposal would still leave $1 million in planning money to allow for a return to its bus-and-pedestrian-focused roots. She isn’t especially thrilled to see the project funding raided, but to the extent it can force a reconsideration of its design, she thinks it makes sense.

“This has become more of a highway project, which will not bring back downtown,” Cort says. “It’s more of a 1950s-style solution here.”

Bowser dismissed those concerns Monday as she spoke in defense of the project at Franklin Park, which sits along a section of K Street set to be redone as part of the transitway. “I don’t think anybody cares about bike lanes at the Wilson Building,” she told reporters (and a small pack of protesters, who very much do care about bike lanes, if their signs are to be believed). “What they do care about is free Metro, creating a new entitlement.”

Allen forcefully disputes this in an interview with LL, arguing that he is simultaneously advancing his Metrobus program and responding to community concerns: “Some people might’ve seen the political pressure from the mayor and decided to oppose this, but our phones have been ringing off the hook from folks downtown concerned about this,” he says.

Yet Herronor would barely address the missing bike lanes and added traffic lane in her new transitway, arguing that “we don’t have a project at all unless the Council reverses its bad decision.” (The most that reporters could get out of her crowd of assembled deputies was an admission from District Department of Transportation Director Everett Lott that the bike lane shift was part of a “compromise” needed to help satisfy neighbors and other interests.) When LL asked how Bowser intended to placate advocates upset with those shifts to win support for the project, she simply returned to familiar talking points.

“We can’t attract people to the bus if they’re sitting in the same traffic that they would be sitting in, in their own vehicle where they can control the temperature, the noise, the radio, and all of that,” Bowser said. “So to attract people to public transit, we have to compete with that. And one way to compete with that is to shave time off of the bus rides. And that is the promise of K Street.”

That’s all true enough, even if it doesn’t exactly address the question at hand. Tracy Hadden Loh, a transit and development researcher at the Brookings Institution, observes to LL that “congestion on K Street is so bad that buses are running as slow as 2.8 miles per hour.”

“It’s great if paying the fare is not a barrier to people riding the bus,” says Loh, who stresses she’s speaking in her personal capacity and not in her role as a member of WMATA’s board of directors. “But first, we want the bus to be faster than walking.”

But Baca and other advocates believe it’s unreasonable to count on the transitway project to actually deliver service improvements anytime soon, considering it’s been on the boards since 2009. “Let’s do something that would help riders right now,” she argues, noting that Allen’s proposal would fund a dozen new, 24/7 bus lines and create a $10 million fund dedicated to improving Metrobus service, in addition to making buses free.

Crucially, it appears Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has come around to the same conclusion. He appreciates Bowser’s desire to reinvigorate downtown neighborhoods (considering the impact of commercial property values on city tax revenues) but he sees the transitway as the wrong solution to an urgent problem.

“If her strategy to revitalize downtown is something that will be finished in five to six years, it once again misses the mark,” Mendelson told reporters Monday. “It needs to be done now, not five years from now.”

If Mendelson is indeed on board, that’s a very good sign for Allen’s effort. As transportation committee chair, Allen can make recommendations about funding, but the chairman will get the final say on what is presented to the Council to vote on later this month. Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto has come out as a strong opponent of the plan (perhaps unsurprisingly, considering she represents K Street and surely hears frequently from the property owners backing Bowser in this fight), but it’s unclear whether she has a majority of her colleagues on her side to override Mendelson and Allen. Baca, who helped lobby the Council on this approach, suspects she does not, considering how transit advocates have shifted.

“Everybody is a little bit tired of this caterwauling about downtown,” Baca says. And Allen notes that his plan passed on a 5-0 vote out of the transportation committee, so he’s well on his way to moving it ahead.

The fate of a smaller piece of Allen’s plan to fund the “Metro for D.C.” program is considerably less clear. He and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau want to levy a new, $2 surcharge on Uber and Lyft rides entering and exiting downtown between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day to add about $10 million to the free bus program annually; Bowser and Pinto both adamantly oppose that measure, and Mendelson said he would wait until a budget mark-up session on Wednesday to see how other councilmembers viewed the proposal before deciding on it. Allen acknowledged Mendelson’s concerns about the funding stream, and said it will be “in the hands of the chairman” to ultimately decide how to fund “Metro for D.C.” Mendelson has named the program as a priority, but Allen was only able to find $154 million of the roughly $180 million it needs to operate over the next four years, and that figure includes the money from Nadeau’s new ride share fee.

And then there’s the role of Metro itself to consider. General Manager Randy Clarke has consistently sounded a cautious note about the bus program generally in his public remarks. He’s pointed out that the WMATA board still needs to sign off on a memorandum of understanding with the city to actually launch free bus service. (Loh says this remains a “live issue” and she was just meeting with city officials to discuss the details.)

Clarke was even more hesitant to embrace Allen’s plan to make K Street cuts last week, cautioning that it could interfere with Metro’s efforts to lead a broader bus network redesign. (A Metro spokesperson pointed LL to those remarks, but otherwise did not comment on Allen’s proposal.) For his part, Allen says he’s talking to Metro right now in the hopes of working all this out, noting that WMATA likely won’t finish that new bus map until next year.

Hanging over all this is Metro’s looming budget deficit, which could balloon to billions of dollars over the coming years as federal relief money runs out. Allen could win this bus budget battle only to be plunged into a new round of regional debate over how to simply preserve existing Metro service next year.

“It’s great that D.C. is thinking creatively about how to provide new revenue to WMATA, because we are going to need all that creativity and more in the coming calendar year,” Loh says.