By Jonathan Krall
To fund “priority transportation projects”, Alexandria City Council passed a 2% add-on property tax in 2011. With added cash from the General Fund, City Council created the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), for the purpose of expanding transportation infrastructure, with funding equal to 2.2 cents of the base real estate tax. Over the years, however, none of the initially-advertised projects have been completed and most of the money is now being spent on operations instead of capital improvements.
Of the 20 projects proposed when the $9 million/year TIP was approved , eight major projects were slated to have funds fully allocated within FY2012-15. Of those, only two, “DASH Fleet Expansion” ($8.5M) and “King/Quaker/Braddock Intersection” ($6M), have shown significant progress and intersection construction has not yet started. Two others, “Corridor C Construction”, the West End Transitway ($19.5M), and “King Street Station Improvements”, the replacement of the King Street Metro parking lot with expanded bus bays ($3.2M), are largely planned.
What about the other four projects? There have been “Holmes Run Greenway/Eisenhower East” trail improvements, but nothing resembling the $3.6M proposal. The final three, “Expanded Trolley/Circulator/Transit Service” ($3.5M), “Old Cameron Run Trail” ($3.5M), and “Mt Vernon Ave/Russell Road Intersection” ($1M), were not funded. The Old Cameron Run Trail would fill a major gap between the Holmes Run/Eisenhower Trail and Old Town, opening an accessible commuting route to and from the West End.
So where is the money going? According to Jim Durham, Chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, only 11% of these funds, $1M per year, are currently going towards transportation improvements. The remainder funds transportation-related operating expenses (49%), Alexandria's contribution to WMATA (34%) and debt service (6%). These numbers are based on the ten-year projected budget presented at the November 2015 City Council retreat .
What is not clear, at least to me, is how we switched from funding new projects to shoring up current programs. We should instead be building the new capacity that our expanding population needs. Even if the promised FY2012-2015 funds were allocated to capital improvements, but not yet spent, the recent re-purposing of TIP is troubling.
In 2014, as part of the FY 2015 budget process, City staff identified transportation revenue from the newly-state-funded Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and other sources, none of which can be used for operations. Based on this reported imbalance between capital and operating funds, City Council expanded TIP to allow any transportation-related expenditure. The idea is that NVTA funds will cover capital improvements while TIP funds are used for operations. However, NVTA projects are regional, not local. Originally-proposed TIP projects remain orphaned while NVTA money is slated to be spent on the Potomac Yard Metro Station.
According to Durham, “This change in policy occurred with little to no formal debate.” To be fair, he points out that Councilman (now Vice Mayor) Justin Wilson raised this issue during the budget process and at the 2015 City Council retreat.
In his presentation at the retreat, Transportation and Environmental Services Director Yon Lambert identified $84M in planned projects for the next 10 years, only $10M of which are slated for TIP funding. At the retreat, as Durham tells it, “Councilman Wilson again proposed that Council members talk through options ... or ask the City Manager to propose options, but they declined to do either.”
When reached for comment, Lambert confirmed that TIP funds are covering costs, such as the WMATA payment, formerly covered by the General Fund. He added that “TIP has always funded operations for newly-expanded programs, such as Capital Bikeshare or DASH.” However, “the operating side has grown in the last two years.”
From where I sit, it looks like the City Council is using a transportation improvement tax that many citizens supported, including myself, to prop up the general fund. I understand that City Council is under constant pressure to cut taxes and expand services, but re-purposing the local TIP program is not the answer. The time has come to exercise leadership, raise taxes if necessary, and get these transportation projects moving.