Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Mayor Muriel Bowser managed to start the controversy over the K Street NW Transitway with an unfortunate tweet. Her efforts to end it with one were not nearly as successful.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson says he is sticking by a pitch from his colleagues to defund most of the project and move the money elsewhere, despite last-ditch efforts to drum up social media support over the weekend from both Bowser and Metro General Manager Randy Clarke. Mendelson released a 2024 budget proposal Monday that would remove all but $8 million of the $115 million budgeted for the effort to remake a key stretch of downtown, dedicating most of the savings to providing new, 24/7 bus service throughout much of the city instead.

The chairman’s pitch, which represents his efforts to consolidate various proposals from the full Council ahead of a first vote on the budget Tuesday, represents a partial concession to the Metro board’s demands that the city hold off on its original, more ambitious plan to simultaneously expand bus service and make it fare-free within the District’s borders. Metro also strongly supported the K Street project, as it would add a dedicated bus lane to speed up service on the congested corridor, but Mendelson told reporters Sunday that he remained too concerned about the project’s design to leave its funding untouched.

Transit advocates were outraged when Bowser simultaneously removed protected bike lanes from the K Street plans and appeared to add additional lanes of traffic to them as she circulated new designs to drum up support for the project last month. The mayor tried to walk that back with a series of tweets published on Friday, arguing that there would still only be two car lanes in each direction as she pursues “design options that are consistent with revitalizing K St as an upgraded multi-modal corridor,” but that push seems to have been too little, too late.

“I hate to say it, but pretty much everybody says privately they don’t like the design,” Mendelson says. “It was kind of driving me crazy a little bit because of the public conversations and then the private conversations.”

Mendelson actually increased planning money for the project beyond the $1 million transportation committee chair Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen originally left dedicated to K Street. The chair says he’s already pressed Bowser to use that money to come up with “a plan that everybody likes,” and then come back with a funding proposal: “The council will fully support the mayor funding it next year,” Mendelson says, urging reporters to quote him on this point for a little accountability next budget season.

The full Council will still get a chance to tinker with Mendelson’s plans, of course, but his proposals at this stage of the budget process generally survive without too many changes. Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto has been a vocal advocate for the K Street project, but she may find herself lonely on that front, especially because Mendelson was able to redistribute the money to so many other priorities.

There’s $46.2 million, for instance, to add 13 overnight bus routes for lawmakers, such as Allen, hoping to expand transit access in the city. Unlike the fare-free component of Mendelson and Allen’s bus plan, the chairman says he’s received assurances from Metro that “overnight [service] was not an issue” for the transit agency to handle. (A Metro spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

In a concession to Bowser, Pinto, and other downtown interests, Mendelson did agree to tinker with Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau’s plan to fund this bus service via a rush-hour tax on ride-hailing services in the area; he hopes to impose a flat $0.25 surcharge on every Uber and Lyft ride around the city, instead of Nadeau’s $2 fee on those entering and exiting downtown at peak times.

“I don’t think 25 cents is something that’s going to make people choke,” Mendelson says, noting it will raise about $8.5 million in revenue while Nadeau’s proposal generated closer to $10 million. Anyone driving an electric or hybrid vehicle will only see a $0.10 charge, though this is likely to still attract stiff opposition from the influential companies.

Mendelson devoted most of the money he could find in the budget, however, to housing programs, considering the deep cuts Bowser planned in her original proposal.

Specifically, he wants to steer another $35 million to the emergency rental assistance program, a top priority for most councilmembers, ensuring it will be funded at the same, $43 million level as it was in fiscal year 2023. Similarly, Mendelson wants to restore a program to provide legal services to people that can’t afford them to its $31.6 million funding level, seeing it as a key way to help renters fight evictions. And he will fund a proposal from At-Large Councilmember Robert White to cap rent increases in rent-controlled apartments to 6.9 percent over the next two years, down from the 8.9 percent increases landlords are currently allowed to seek. (White’s original efforts to set this limit via legislation were stymied by Bowser’s dubious claims that her agencies couldn’t afford to make such a move; advocates were pushing White to adopt a 5 percent cap instead but he wouldn’t budge.)

“It’s pretty remarkable what we’ve been able to do in this budget,” Mendelson says. “I don’t think any of us thought on March 22 [when Bowser presented her proposal] that we would be able to restore ERAP to its full level.”

Implicit in Mendelson’s rosy outlook on these issues is that he hopes to stave off any attempts from councilmembers to raise additional revenue this year. Progressives have been pushing a plan to hold off on the planned phase-out of a tax hike on large commercial property sales, which Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker is likely to propose Tuesday, but Mendelson remains firmly opposed to the idea. Parker believes the extra $104 million it would generate could be used to fund priorities like more money for SNAP benefits or aid checks for workers excluded from pandemic relief programs, issues that Mendelson concedes he wasn’t able to fund in his budget.

Yet Mendelson argues that the measure would be “very, very damaging to downtown,” disrupting major property sales just as the neighborhood recovers from the pandemic. The plan’s backers have dismissed these concerns, noting that wealthy landowners barely notice the extra costs imposed by this tax, but it seems he has won at least Pinto over to his side on this point.

“Given the cost of these buildings and the current status of downtown, these deals have very narrow margins, meaning a last-minute change in taxes owed will put many of these deals in jeopardy,” Pinto wrote in a letter to her colleagues Monday. “The hollowing out of our downtown core will lead to a precipitously declining tax base for the city and a tidal wave effect for program and service cuts in all of our neighborhoods.”

A fight over that tax may well be the defining feature of Tuesday’s budget vote, which generally decides most of the big issues surrounding the spending plan ahead of a second vote in two weeks’ time. Time will tell if Mendelson’s changes are enough to placate councilmembers, or if they press for more substantial alterations.