Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Doubts emerge about D.C.'s ability to execute transportation projects

April 26, 2012 - 11:10 AM
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(Photo: flickr/talkingdc)

The D.C. Council worries that the District Department of Transportation may be moving forward with not exactly breathtaking speed. The feared sluggishness stands in stark contrast to the ambitious sustainability vision that Mayor Vince Gray outlined recently, which called for three of every four trips to be car-free in 20 years. The Council has worried over the progress with streetcar contracts before, and now faces pressure of an approaching deadline — the first 2.5-mile line is expected to begin next year. Yesterday talk of delays emerged again, as Councilmember Tommy Wells pointed out an instance in which the department received bids back in October and even now, seven months later, haven't secured a contract.

"We haven’t even been able to award the contract!" Wells said to DDOT Director Terry Bellamy yesterday in a hearing on the department's 2013 budget.

"We are very confident if we can get it through this next Council hearing," Bellamy answered ultimately. The proposed contract in question had apparently gone back and forth between DDOT and the office of the attorney general for awhile.

But Wells, as in the past, expressed concern that DDOT doesn't cut corners and begins the streetcar network in the right way.

"We don’t want an arbitrary date where we launch the streetcar if it’s not ready," Wells said. "I strongly support the mayor’s direction [in his overall ambitious initiatives] … but I don’t see the government able to execute very well. The government is not executing at a level we would expect."

Others reiterated concerns over the streetcar progress. Meg Maguire of the Committee of 100 told the Council that the way DDOT has handled the H Street/Benning Road Line has been "fueling significant public skepticism" about its abilities.

The recent confusion over the Red Top Parking Meters inspired similar confusion and frustration with how the project was managed. But the biggest doubts concerned the government's pace. These delays manifested in many forms throughout the Council budget hearing. Why hadn't the District begun a new program targeting bike thefts? A delay in transferring money. Other witnesses had testified about vacant positions in the department that needed to be filled — "important positions," Neha Bhatt, chair of the Pedestrian Advisory Council, said to the Council. She wondered whether DDOT should have "hard deadlines" for filling them, with "escalating penalties to the agency if it can’t get done." DDOT staff attempted to restore confidence by describing where the agency was in the hiring process. Luckily the city's new parking manager began Monday — it's a critical position that's needed to be filled for months now. Bicycling advocates also had worried over the slow pace of bike lane implementation last year, which ran contrary to stated plans. Is it perhaps a consequence of the department's broad responsibilities? DDOT handles everything from biking to roads to car-sharing to streetcars to pedestrian issues.

"We need an explanation of why it takes all these months to transfer money," Councilmember Mary Cheh remarked from the dais.

"We’re living up to the reputation of how people say government works,” Wells noted.

"Or doesn’t," Cheh replied.

Wells chuckled wryly. "That’s right."

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