Phil Mendelson restores some, but not all, streetcar and solar funding

Image by DDOT.

For the first vote on DC's budget on May 30, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson slashed streetcar funding and a program that provides incentives for more solar power in DC. The budget lacked money necessary to extend the streetcar to Benning Road, never mind downtown. Now, he's proposing to bring back some but not all of the lost funding.

The council will take a second vote on the budget Tuesday. Monday, Mendelson released a budget amendment that tweaks a number of budget line items, including these two. The relevant bits:

Restoration of $2M to the fund balance of the Renewable Energy Development Fund at the Department of Energy and the Environment.

Restoration of $6.6M to the streetcar project to ensure adequate funding for core operations. Systems and Asset Management from FY17 through FY19 are unchanged from the mayor’s proposed budget. The Benning Extension remains fully funded at $199M and the line is projected to be complete in FY23. The budget does not provide $6M in FY19 for the Georgetown extension or $35M for replacement of existing streetcars in FY21-FY23.

Mendelson had initially claimed that the cuts wouldn't prevent, or delay, extending the streetcar to Benning Road in Ward 7. But, transportation officials said, that wasn't true. His budget stripped funding from necessary programs, such as product management and design for needed fixes, from the existing streetcar line. That would have forced DDOT to move money off the extension just to keep the H Street line running.

At best, the Benning extension would have been delayed at least three years, final costs would have risen by about $18 million, and the existing streetcars would have began to decay. At worst, all streetcar extensions could have been eliminated, and the existing line could have quickly fallen into a state of disrepair. Martin Di Caro reported that even three years would have been optimistic.

This only restores the funding for Fiscal Year 18, the upcoming year. Projects for H/Benning in FY19 and beyond are still not restored. They would have to be fixed in future budgets or the Benning extension is still not possible; that's because DDOT officials previously explained they couldn't do the extension unless the needed work on the existing line were funded. DDOT staffers weren't available to comment immediately on the budget changes.

For the solar fund, Mendelson previously cut $7.5 million; he's now planning to restore $2 million. Tommy Wells, director of the Department of Energy and the Environment, explained that while the fund looked like it had a surplus, that was just money which had come in recently and hadn't yet been spent, since the money doesn't even arrive until May.

Last-minute cuts, which the executive branch strenuously insists are misguided, don't make for good government. Sometimes the executive is right and sometimes not, but all this budgeting is happening without time for most councilmembers or the public to actually discuss and understand the budgetary issues.