DC mayor’s ‘comeback’ budget adds traffic cameras, cuts bus routes

D.C.’s mayor has unveiled her proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

Billed as a “comeback plan,” in an appearance with the D.C. Council on Wednesday morning, the budget focuses on revitalizing downtown, adding hundreds more traffic cameras throughout the District and cutting the number of DC Circulator bus routes in half. Three routes are being eliminated and with them, possibly contractor personnel, as part of the city’s fiscal 2024 budget.

Mayor Muriel Bowser told council members that the city’s finances are strong, but they must face reality — an estimated drop in revenue of more than $390 million due to the economic slump, expiring federal COVID funds and a lasting shift to telework of downtown workers.

“Last month’s revenue estimates were a sobering reminder of how urgent the work is to bring back our downtown,” Bowser said.

Her plan to counteract the loss of dollars generated by the 9 to 5 workforce not fully coming back to downtown is to deliver on a proposal to pull 15,000 new residents into that part of the city, allocating $41 million to support housing. Some of that funding will go toward ending federal leases, which represent more than a quarter of the city’s commercial space, and converting those spaces into apartments.

“We will put our city on a more sustainable path right now.” Bowser said. “And for every 10 downtown workers, there is one downtown resident. Other neighborhoods which were much more resilient over the past three years had a more balanced mix of resident-to-worker ratio. In Union Market, for example, it’s about one-to-one.”

More revenue from traffic cameras

While there are no revenue-generating tax increases, the mayor’s budget supports the addition of 342 traffic cameras projected to pull in $578 million over four years in annual revenue.

Broadly, the $19.7 billion gross budget funds had to meet some big expenses, including $558 million to fully fund collective bargaining agreements with teachers, firefighters and police, principals and “critical government workers.”

It also allocates $481 million to fund the city’s retirement account — which is feeling the pull of the aging workforce — Medicaid, and $124 million to fund cost increases and inflation for existing school, parks and recreation, and library projects.

But D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson was unimpressed by the administration’s “Fair Shot Budget,” releasing a statement hours after the presentation with strong critiques on its “poor choices.”

“Although next years’ budget will have more money to spend than this years’, and the Mayor has chosen the theme of recovery, a closer look reveals budget choices that set back recovery for low-income and middle-income residents including:

  • A cut to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program from $43 million to $8 million, despite current demand.
  • A 60% reduction in Civil Legal Services, which primarily helps tenants with eviction
  • The elimination of 22 building inspectors, which he said will set back efforts to curb slumlord conditions for tenants
  • Elimination of the free bus service

Three of six DC Circulator bus routes are on the chopping block in the mayor’s budget — the route from Dupont Circle to Rosslyn, Eastern Market to L’Enfant Plaza & Woodley Park to McPherson Square would be cut. City Administrator Kevin Donahue suggested so too could the jobs of those who work on those lines, who are not D.C. government employees. He pointed to the cost of moving to electric buses and low ridership compared to Metro bus routes.

“So keeping the six routes, expanding it which has had been a discussion as well would have required us to add substantial amounts to our recurring budget to cover the operating cost annually. And we’ve also would have had to put over $100 million into the capital budget to make sure we built out the electrification, infrastructure, and the maintenance infrastructure to be able to sustain the program,” Donahue said.

Dispute over free Metrobus

The council’s recent effort to make Metrobus free D.C. was not mentioned in the mayor’s budget. Bowser said she is hopeful the council looks to the hard reality the city is facing when it comes to subsidizing transit costs.

“I think it’s important for the council members to carefully consider the cost. What it would cost to provide free Metrobus in the District — not just this year, but throughout the financial plan. What does it mean for the existing Kids Ride Free program? I have to admit when this was discussed by the council in December, I thought that the free bus would offset Kids Ride Free and not be additive to the $26 million we already spend on Kids Ride Free. So I think there needs to be some confirmation around how those programs interact,” she said.

She also pointed to Metro’s efforts to provide a program for low-income residents, and the existing free Metro Access rides.

Among the few new budget items, the mayor wants to see the council approve are her $5 million after-school program, My Afterschool DC, meant to be free for families.

“We also expand the eligibility for child care subsidy, which will allow more than 2,000 more DC families to qualify for subsidized child care. So those things are hugely important to how we grow,” Bowser said during a news conference following the budget meeting.

The mayor emphasized the challenges the city faced, which included one month to close a $1.7 billion budget gap, after the Chief Financial Officer offered a February forecast.

‘Scant new spending’

“We have to be good at the basics,” Bowser said. “And so some of the emphasis that you saw on facilities … small capital repairs, is making sure that we have what we need in terms of our buildings and our ability to make sure that we’re delivering for the people of the District of Columbia.”

She added, “What you will also see is from us, scant new spending proposals. So we’ve had to true up because of inflation, some programs that I committed to or the council was committed to, to make sure we can deliver them.”

Now the negotiations begin between the council and the administration with a scheduled final council vote on the budget on May 30.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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