Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Happy 10th birthday to Washington, D.C.'s Department of Transportation

June 7, 2012 - 12:53 PM
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(Photo: DDOT)

The District Department of Transportation turns 10 years old today, which Mayor Vince Gray recognized this morning down at DDOT headquarters. It was only a decade ago that the District Department of Transportation Establishment Act of 2002 created the agency out of the Department of Public Works. A 2004 GAO review conveyed satisfaction with the progress and noted DDOT was "off to a good start." The department now sports over 900 employees and helps manage everything from streetscaping to the developing 37-mile streetcar network to road quality to bicycling infrastructure to Potholepalooza to traffic safety to car-sharing to major bridge projects to pedicab regulations to the new move toward performance parking, all with an annual budget of $400 million. What a modest set of responsibilities, right?

"In our first decade as an independent agency, we have made tremendous strides improving the way we deliver everything from major infrastructure projects to routine services," DDOT Director Terry Bellamy wrote in the agency's 2011 report. "We’ve also launched and expanded the popular DC Circulator bus system and the nation’s largest bikesharing system, and we are poised to restore streetcar service to the District after a 50-year absence. There’s a lot to be proud of at DDOT and I want to thank everyone in the agency for their dedicated service and efforts to make DDOT what it is today. DDOT delivers consistently and as a result I believe we have earned the respect of many of our customers and partners."

This morning Mayor Vince Gray declared June 7 to be "DDOT Day" in D.C. as the officials celebrated the anniversary with a big red and white cake. The agency has developed into a strong voice in D.C.'s transportation world, and it's hard to imagine a time before DDOT. Yet the agency has continued to struggle with some criticism — most regarding the level of discipline it brings to its work.

Councilmember Tommy Wells expressed great misgivings about the pace at which many DDOT projects have moved forward and was a vocal critic at of some of the delays plaguing the first H Street-Benning Road streetcar line. His rhetoric conveyed great disappointment with the ability of the agency to execute its projects. The confusion and frustration surrounding DDOT's red top parking meter program this past spring also created concerns.

Mary Cheh, the head of the D.C. Council's transportation committee for the better part of the past year and now acting chair after Chairman Kwame Brown's resignation yesterday, echoed these concerns in council meetings throughout the past year. She also points to DDOT's contracting practices, and in her 2013 budget recommendations noted the following:

Testimony presented during the course of the Committee’s 2012 oversight and budget hearings highlighted concerns with DDOT’s contracting practices. The department confirmed what the Committee has heard in the past: the contracting process is plagued by a small pool of contractors leading to a lack of real competition. Limited competition not only leads to less capable contractors, but also can substantially inflate EPWT – Draft FY 2013 Budget Report Page 19 prices. The department acknowledged that contractor pricing in the District is often non- competitive when compared with other jurisdictions. Indeed, DDOT suggested that we may be paying a premium of as much as 20%. Such a significant discrepancy in pricing is of great concern. The financial constraints described above make competitive pricing and a competent vendor pool critically important. With hundreds of millions spent annually on transportation construction, an increased focus on expanding vendor opportunities and reducing inefficiencies in the contracting process must be a goal.

A 20% premium on contracts does sound steep and unacceptable, and Cheh's office is correct to issue this recommendation.

But despite these challenges of pace and financial discipline, the department handles much well in the District and has helped craft a 21st-century transportation environment with plenty of different modes and better infrastructure to support them. The city's wheels keep turning. The 11th Street Bridge Project is moving forward, Capital Bikeshare is expanding, and so on. Happy 10th birthday, DDOT. Here's to another 10.

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