Mayor Bowser, City Council leaders battle over Downtown D.C.'s Future

It’s budget season and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is once again sparring with D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen. Only this time, it has to do with Allen’s work as the D.C. Transportation Committee Chair.

"…You can count on me to me oppose, and oppose vigorously, any downtown killers in this budget process," said D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser at an event held on Monday, calling out Allen for taking-up a measure that would pull funding from the "K Street Transitway" project to pay for free bus fares.

Last December, the council moved quickly and voted unanimously to approve waiving fees for bus fares that originate in D.C. Then about two months ago, councilmembers learned the tax revenue they thought would be available to fund fare-free busses, was apparently no longer there, according to DC’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

Now to the "K Street Transitway" project, a major overhaul and revitalization project of K St. NW from 12th to 21st Streets Northwest. DC's Department of Transportation has been working on the project since at least 2009. Plans include removing the service lanes on K St. and creating dedicated bus lanes in the middle of the roadway. The plan calls for two driving lanes in each direction, among other changes. Original plans for bike lanes have been removed. D-DOT is now reviewing adding those bike lanes to L St. NW in the downtown area.

The goal is to improve Metro bus service along the major downtown East-West corridor. It was noted at the press conference that K St. NW sees about 37 buses an hour. The K Street Transitway could allow for about 50 buses an hour, or about a bus a minute.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called-out council leaders for supporting a plan that would pull funding for the "K Street Transitway" to pay for free bus fares. FOX 5 asked about this and the criticism that her budget cut funding for two Circulator routs that serve Downtown D.C.: McPherson Square to Woodley Park and Rosslyn to DuPont routes.

"Well if the council thinks that those lines are important, they can fund them," said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to FOX 5, "and so we made decisions using operating dollars that were saved by those routes, which all of those routes compared to Metro are underperforming routs, and we used the savings from hose operating dollars to prevent cuts in operating dollars in other areas of our budget. What we think is very, very bad budget policy is to attempt to convert capitol dollars, which K Street funding is, to create operating dollars to fund a brand new entitlement of which we don’t actually know how much it costs …"

"Now I understand the Transportation Committee has recommended restoring one of the Circulator routes," continued D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, "but not for the downtown – for the wards served by the Transportation Committee Chair."

"The plan needs some refreshing and stores don’t need to have the pavement outside of their door torn-up for two years, not right now," said Council Chair Phil Mendelson in part of his remarks head of the mayor’s news conference.

City leaders have also been working on converting empty office space into residential spaces as a means to help revitalize the downtown area with many federal workers and private-sector employees still working remotely.

FOX 5 asked longtime D.C. area realtor Jay Nix about the K Street project.

"If they do this transit thing and make K Street more viable and inviting residential type area with restaurants and shopping and an easier mode, way of getting down there, I think that could help property values down there and also help draw buyers who never thought of living downtown," said Nix, "I don’t think it’s going to impact the people who live out in the suburbs as much, other than the fact that if they do have to – people who live in the suburbs – have to come down for work, downtown for work again, then they may be upset that they’ve lost some commuter time by making K Street less car friendly."

Cycling advocates at the protest expressed their frustration with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser that original plans to have bike lanes on K Street have now been moved to L Street NW.

 "With Climate change and studies after studies that show that cars just damage cities, they damage the environment, they kill people. I just think it’s crazy that Mayor Bowser continues to focus on cars over bikes," said one advocate.

A woman who uses Metro bus told FOX 5, "I think it’s a quagmire and I’m going to tell you why: right now COVID, everybody’s saying that it is over or not over but people are still sick and people are still trying to recover …  the fare being free, would be something that would be -- should be considered but it’s not safe to have people standing in the middle of the street."

Councilmember Brooke Pinto joined the mayor and spoke at the Monday news conference. Councilmember Bonds’ office expressed opposition to pulling funds that could impact key downtown corridors right now.

FOX 5 is still waiting to hear back from other offices or was told the councilmembers were not ready to make a decision yet. Councilmember Vincent Gray’s office tweeted this thread on transit cuts impacting his Ward:

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White expressed to FOX 5 he could not understand why people are going back-and-forth over bike lanes when schools are underfunded, the District has a housing crisis and the city is seeing some of its highest crime rates in three years.

If the K Street Transit moves forward as planned, D-DOT is hoping to start construction this time next year. We’re told the project could take about three years to finish.

The council is expected to vote on the matter next week. FOX 5 is also waiting for a response from Councilmember Allen’s office.