In response to the coronavirus pandemic, WMATA has slashed its budget and implemented a three-phase reopening plan. But the transit agency is also handling safety concerns, like the recent derailment of a Red Line train. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld joined The Politics Hour for an update.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld says that WMATA service isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2021. (Tyrone Turner / WAMU)

Derailments And Metro Safety

  • On Tuesday, a Red Line train partially derailed just outside the Silver Spring station. None of the 32 passengers were injured. A preliminary investigation by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission found that the operator had run a red signal, which has been a fireable offense in the past.
  • Metro has had five instances of derailment from July 2019 to March 2020, but none of them were in-service passenger vehicles.
  • In other safety news, Metro is replacing the head of its Rail Operations Control Center after multiple safety violations.

The Future Of Metro

  • In May, WMATA passed a revised $2.7 billion budget, cutting nearly $1.2 billion from the pre-coronavirus budget passed earlier this year. Plans to extend late-night hours, increase weekend service and more have been nixed.
  • The transit agency will take an estimated $210 million hit from lost fare revenue and $27 million from non-fare revenue, like advertisements. WMATA staff say they were able to balance the budget with the help of the CARES Act and agency budget cuts.
  • On The Politics Hour, Wiedefeld said that the CARES funding will probably last the agency through mid-December. But Wiedefeld said it’s too early to know how much Metro will ask for.
  • WMATA has outlined a three-phase plan to ramp its service back up, with a plan to return to a pre-pandemic schedule sometime in 2021.
  • The Metro board is also looking into making bus rides free or at a reduced cost for low-income residents.

New Oversight Panel For Metro Transit Police

  • The Metro Board unanimously approved the creation of a Metro Transit Police oversight panel to review the department’s investigations. The seven-member panel will include three command-level police members — one from each of the jurisdictions — and four civilian members.
  • But some have voiced concerns over how independent the Investigations Review Panel will actually be. The panel’s sessions won’t be open to the public, and the panel members will need the Metro Board’s permission before making public statements.
  • When asked about concerns about the independence of the review board, Wiedefeld said that the Metro board established those rules as a “first step.” He added, “We also have to recognize that there are personnel issues, there are labor contract issues that all have to be put in context.”
  • MTPD has received criticism for biased policing. The department is facing a lawsuit for repeatedly tasing a civilian who confronted officers about how they were interacting with an adolescent. In February, the Washington Post broke the story of Metro Transit Police officers taking part in a competition that encouraged arrests and other law enforcement actions. And MTPD officers handcuffed and arrested a 13-year-old boy this winter.

D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray has pushed for a new hospital to be built east of the Anacostia River since he was mayor. (Chesapeake Bay Program / Flickr)

The D.C. Council had a marathon vote this week to consider the 2021 budget and new legislation. D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) joined The Politics Hour to give us the latest.

D.C. Council’s First Budget Vote

  • The D.C. Council spent much of its marathon meeting ahead of the budget vote on the issue of taxes. It ultimately voted down a measure introduced by Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) to modestly increase taxes on D.C.’s wealthiest residents to help with low-income housing initiatives.
  • Gray voted against the tax rate increase. “I’m not sure we’re in a position at this stage to raise taxes,” he said on The Politics Hour. Gray said that D.C. lost $722 million in revenue this year, and the city is slated to lose a similar amount next year.
  • The council did approve three tax changes that put more money to support undocumented workers, school-based mental health programs, affordable housing, violence interruption and more.
  • The D.C. Council will vote again on the budget on July 21 before sending it to Mayor Muriel Bowser.

On The Horizon: A New Hospital In Ward 8

  • The D.C. Council voted in favor of a bill approving a deal with George Washington University to build a new hospital on the St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8.
  • With 12 votes in support and one recusal from Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who is a professor at George Washington University, the nearly unanimous vote contrasts the previous discord on the hospital plan.
  • Gray has advocated for a new hospital east of the Anacostia River since he was mayor.
  • The D.C. Council must vote on the hospital bill again before its final passage.

Police Reform In D.C.

  • The D.C. Council passed a second version of it’s emergency police reform legislation this week, with some changes made in coordination with Bowser’s office. It will repeal and replace the first version.
  • On The Kojo Nnamdi Show, D.C. Auditor and former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson said that a lot of the police reform measures in the emergency legislation are already on the books. But she said the new efforts may build-in additional penalties and tighten up the language.
  • Part of the legislation would allow felons to vote, with D.C. actively sending absentee ballots to incarcerated D.C. residents across the country. Since this is part of emergency legislation, it would expire in 90 days unless the council makes it permanent.

Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

Produced by Cydney Grannan

Guests

  • Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper; @tomsherwood
  • Paul Wiedefeld General Manager and Chief Executive Officer, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; @WMATA
  • Vincent Gray Member (D-Ward 7), D.C. Council; Former Mayor, Washington, D.C.; @VinceGrayWard7

Transcript

  • 12:00:08

    KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, in Washington, at American University, welcome to The Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.

  • 12:00:33

    TOM SHERWOODHello, everybody.

  • 12:00:35

    NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray. Joining us now is Paul Wiedefeld, General Manager of WMATA. Paul Wiedefeld, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:49

    PAUL WIEDEFELDThank you, Kojo. I hope you and Tom and your families are doing well.

  • 12:00:52

    NNAMDITom Sherwood, before we get to Paul Wiedefeld, apparently Maryland is going to be opening all polling places on Election Day. And they're mailing an application for absentee ballots to each voter. What's going on here?

  • 12:01:10

    SHERWOODWell, some people are worried about this, because they had a lot of trouble with the June primary. But there are 1,700 polling places in the State of Maryland. It takes about 20,000 people to run it. Many of those are often older people, who might be afraid to do volunteer or be hired this year because of the virus. Governor Hogan -- the State Board of Elections initially say they didn't -- they thought they might mail out ballots directly to everyone. Governor Hogan has taken a different position and so he wants to -- just like the District you have to ask for an absentee ballot. But at least Maryland is going to send out a notice saying, "Here's how you do it?" But like every state in the district in the nation, the November 3rd election is already ramping up to be something terrible if this states don't get it right.

  • 12:02:02

    NNAMDIBut if they're mailing applications for absentee ballots wouldn't it be just as simple to simply mail the ballot.

  • 12:02:10

    SHERWOODWell, the concern is like, again, the District and other places. You know, voting roles are not as clean and up to date as people would like. There's an issue. You can't cut off people who haven't voted, you know, it's their right not to vote. And people change addresses and they don't change their voting address. Tens of thousands of people probably don't have an accurate voting address in Maryland. So if you send out ballots everywhere then lots of ballots could show up where the voters no longer live. So a lot of people don't want to do that.

  • 12:02:46

    NNAMDIAnd Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is making it clear that he's looking to run for president in 2024. That he's not interested in going for the Senate. Why this far out?

  • 12:03:00

    SHERWOODWell, he's met the first requirement. It's you have to have a book about yourself. You know, it's not that far out. People are looking well past the 2020 election to 2024. You know, not surprisingly, Governor Hogan let me say has a good story to tell, a popular Republican in a Democratic state and a person who has survived cancer. But, you know, I wasn't surprised at all, he gave this story to the New York Times. He didn't give it to The Baltimore Sun or The Washington Post or any other media in the State of Maryland.

  • 12:03:34

    SHERWOODHe's only had a national eye for the last year, but, you know, he's got a problem now that he is a semi-presidential candidate. Everything he does in Annapolis will be seen through that prism. He's a got a very strong Democratic House and Senate there in Annapolis. Twenty-twenty-four is a long way off. You know, there's a lot could happen for good or bad when it comes to Hogan running for president.

  • 12:04:01

    NNAMDIWell, I think he's waiting to make his final announcement that he's running for president the first time he appears on this broadcast. But let's move on. Paul Wiedefeld, on Tuesday a Redline train derailed near the Silver Spring station with 32 passengers on board. Thankfully there were no injuries. The Metro Board met yesterday to discuss this derailment. What else can you tell us about what happened?

  • 12:04:22

    WIEDEFELDFirst and foremost, you know, this is something that we cannot have happen. And so we are getting to the root cause of this both at the operation level meaning at the operation of the railcar itself and also looking at the communication issues and anything else that transpired both in terms there are people at the platform and then all set the rail operation center. So it's very early in the investigation. So we don't want to go too far there until we get the facts all lined up.

  • 12:04:52

    WIEDEFELDAnd then we will work with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission with them to address any issues. But I can assure you we are all over this to get this figured out as quickly as we can. Unfortunately in this industry these things do occur, but we do not want them to occur. So we want to do everything in our power to stop it.

  • 12:05:13

    NNAMDIThe preliminary investigation by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission an independent body that oversees Metro safety says the operator ran a red light. Has that been ascertained for sure? And this, of course, is a fireable offense and it has been in past cases. So would the Metro likely fire the operator if this turns out to be correct?

  • 12:05:36

    WIEDEFELDIt think it's too early to go that far, Kojo. I think let's let the investigation lead where it leads. And then we will take the necessary actions we need to take.

  • 12:05:44

    NNAMDITom Sherwood.

  • 12:05:45

    SHERWOODI'd ask quickly, is that employee who ran the light if that's what happened, is he or she still on the job or are they suspended? What is their status? Before I get to my real question.

  • 12:05:56

    WIEDEFELDThey are still with the agency, but I am not going to go any further than that because it is a personnel issue.

  • 12:06:03

    SHERWOODOkay. All right. Let me ask you about the virus. I wanted to ask how Metro is doing with ridership. I know I was happy to see that no one or few people rode it for July 4th. But I also want to know about that. But I just was told this morning by your staff that Metro with this terrible virus, Metro has had zero deaths among its 12,000 employees. And that you don't even have someone in the hospital. You can compare that to New York City, which has 50,000 employees and they've had 120 deaths and many people hospitalized. What is Metro doing to protect its workers? Are they staying home?

  • 12:06:46

    WIEDEFELDWhat we did very early is we worked with labor leadership and said, look, the most important thing for us, just protect our employees. Obviously for their personal health, but also at the end of the day, we don't move without our employees. So we have to protect them. So that was the first thing that we said. That's what is going to be our focus. And from that we created a plan to basically to do that.

  • 12:07:09

    WIEDEFELDSo what we did is where we could we went to what we call an AB schedule, which basically that we separated people as much as could. And, you know, we pulled down service. Obviously the market wasn't there. But by pulling that down we could separate people. As you know, in a typical day, you know, our people they're very busy at different peak periods. But in the middle of the day they're not. They interact with each other as you can imagine. So we wanted to reduce that.

  • 12:07:35

    WIEDEFELDSo we worked very closely -- you know, we have labor contracts. We had to work through some issues. So we think by doing that -- the other thing is we setup a very transparent website for our employees that actually put the public of where we had cases, what we're doing about it. And we communicated to our employees, here are the things that we need you to do to stay safe for you, your family and our customers. And again, to the benefit or to the credit of the union they've been very active on that.

  • 12:08:04

    WIEDEFELDWe've done different video conferencing and things like that for the entire agency with Ray Jackson, the head of 689 and also our other union presidents. And it's really been an effort from everyone to say, "No. We have to take this seriously." As you know, our workforce is over 70 percent African American and as you know, it's also one of the targets unfortunately of this terrible virus, and then the communities that our people live in, our employees live in are in some of these hot zones.

  • 12:08:37

    WIEDEFELDSo by taking it head on this way and being very serious and again everyone understand the serious nature of this I think has helped us along the way, but, you know, we are not out of this by any means. We want to continue that level of both, you know, approach to this thing, because that is the last place I want to be. I know that New York has had a terrible time. I've talked to other transit (word?) around the country where they've lost people or have had people in the hospital for months. And we are trying to avoid that with everything we can to avoid that.

  • 12:09:08

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here's Andrew in Arlington. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:17

    ANDREWMr. Wiedefeld, it's nice to hear from you again, sir. I was elected Chair of the Rider's Advisory Council on Wednesday and I got to thank all my colleagues there for trusting me with that. I know first of all you've received thousands of masks from the Federal Transit Administration, and ensuring that everyone has masks is, of course, a big issue that everyone is facing now. How are you planning to distribute those masks, sir? And are you going to be passing that at stations and have them on buses, maybe also some sanitizer?

  • 12:09:55

    ANDREWAlso, yesterday, bus service hit 139,000 daily riders. That's well above the pandemic recovery plan daily capacity for Metro bus. What's the plan to improve bus capacity? And finally ...

  • 12:10:12

    NNAMDINo, no. Please, please, please, please. Those are two questions already. We don't have that much time. Paul Wiedefeld, go ahead, please.

  • 12:10:20

    WIEDEFELDHello, Andrew, and congratulations on being named the chair of the RAC. In terms, of masks, yes, we are -- we will be where we can distribute those. Obviously, the key is how do you distribute those in a sanitary manner. You can't just physically hand them to people or have them sitting on a shelf somewhere. So we have to come out with a process to individually wrap those masks. And then hand them out. So we are working on that. In the same ways with hand sanitizers and things of that sort. So as we get that to the point where we can do that, we will do that put that out there.

  • 12:10:54

    WIEDEFELDIn terms of dealing with ridership and growth, as I mentioned we went to what we call an AB schedule. We will be pulling out of that in mid-August as we start to ramp back up a bit. As you recall our initial recovery plan called for us to come into what we call the manage reentry stage, I'm sorry, in September-October.

  • 12:11:18

    WIEDEFELDWe moved that up a little bit, because the region has started to open up more, but we're very cautious in how we're doing that. But in mid-August we will have many more operators available. And what we use -- and Andrew knows this. It's called an extra board where we can apply those resources, where we have the most demand. So will be doing that in mid-August, but I also want to caution as we've seen around this nation over the last two to three weeks, we are far from out of the woods on this. And we have to monitor very closely what happens in Maryland, District and Virginia.

  • 12:11:49

    WIEDEFELDYou know, obviously the leadership of both governor's and mayor's has been fantastic in this region. But I think they're also being very careful and deliberate in what they're doing. And that's the same approach we will be taking.

  • 12:12:02

    NNAMDIAndrew, thank you very much for you call. Congratulations on being elected Chair. But we only have less than one minute left in this segment, which is why I had to cut you off. Paul Wiedefeld, you announced last month that Metro is replacing the head of its Rail Operations Control Center after repeated safety violations. Can you tell us what the ROCC is responsible for and what you think replacing the director will change for WMATA? We only have about 30 seconds left in this segment.

  • 12:12:28

    WIEDEFELDYeah. I want to make sure that, you know, we take a fresh look at the entire ROCC. The people that were there were working very hard under tremendous stress, but I also wanted to make some change given some of the things I've seen.

  • 12:12:42

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Paul Wiedefeld, General Manager of Metro. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:08

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld. And I'll warn in advance there are only about 10 minutes left in this segment. So if you have a question or comment try to keep it as brief as possible. Paul Wiedefeld, one Tweeter user asked, "At stations that have three escalators, why aren't all three operating? It would be a small effort to prevent crowding for people using Metro."

  • 12:13:28

    WIEDEFELDWhen we do have, obviously, the point where we're operating at the level -- we're down 90 percent in terms of passengers. So we are, you know, doing some things from a maintenance perspective where we can save money. We're doing that just given the lack of demand. So it may be tied to that issue. I'm not specific to what station they're referring to. There may be other issues going on there, but in general that's the general approach.

  • 12:13:53

    WIEDEFELDWhere we have -- with the reduction that we've had in the demand there's opportunities to do a lot things in terms of where we can get ahead of some things. So we're trying to do that where we can. So we've been aggressive doing the platform work, for instance, to do some of that work, and we'll continue to do that as long as the demand is low.

  • 12:14:09

    NNAMDITom Sherwood.

  • 12:14:11

    SHERWOODWith passengers down 90 percent, back in May you got $767 million in federal funds to help you out. And that's helping you now in the current fiscal year about $430 million. You said at the time, though, that you still thought you might have to cut the budget and ask for more federal funds. Where does that stand?

  • 12:14:33

    WIEDEFELDYes. Right now, Tom, our estimate is that would carry us probably through about December, which is about mid of our fiscal year. So as, you know, there's talk of a CARES 2 Act in effect, and we want to thank the delegation. They did a fantastic job in getting those dollars. But, you know, it's important because those dollars were used, A to provide the essential service that we do provide. Particularly those people that support hospitals and the different things that we all rely on, you know, the food stores, the drug stores, the doctor's offices, the hospitals.

  • 12:15:04

    WIEDEFELDWell, the people that are supporting that, you know, those heroes that stand there all day or that clean those rooms or provide those supplies, those are the people that are using our system. And that's why that money was used for to keep that service going. And then also ...

  • 12:15:17

    SHERWOODHow much more money do you think -- excuse me. I know we don't have much time. Want to get to police issues. How much more money do you think at this point do you think at this point you might ask for or is it too early to know?

  • 12:15:27

    WIEDEFELDIt's too early to know, Tom.

  • 12:15:28

    SHERWOODOkay. Let me ask you. Councilmember Robert White in the District has gotten the Council -- they haven't formally approved it yet. But the Chairman says they will by the end of the year, that they will ask Maryland and Virginia and Congress to approve a civilian complaint review board for Metro in the wake of Mr. Floyd's death and all the activities since then. Do you think that the way you handled police complaints is well enough now or would you welcome a civilian complaint review board if it passed through all the regulatory hurdles?

  • 12:16:03

    WIEDEFELDSure. Last month the Board did take an action where they setup a citizen's review board. It will consist of four citizens and three law enforcement officials from the three jurisdictions so that there's representative. And they will be reviewing any complaints that we get, any cases on that matter. And what I would suggest is if anyone is interested in being on that review panel that you can go to our website wmata.com right now and apply for those positions, because they are moving on that.

  • 12:16:35

    WIEDEFELDAnd in terms of whatever legislation comes out both again, the legislation for the compact needed to go through Annapolis, Richmond, the District and also through Congress. So let's -- we would have to see what comes out of that legislation before I can support anything at this point.

  • 12:16:49

    NNAMDIBut the independent panel that was approved by the Board, some are worried about how independent it will be. Its meetings will be closed to the public. Members will need Metro Board approval before making public statements. Any findings of the panel will only be posted to Metro's website once they've gone through Metro's legal department. How do you respond to concern about the panel's independence and transparency?

  • 12:17:11

    WIEDEFELDI mean, the Board established that as the first step for one thing. But we also have to recognize that there are personnel issues. There are labor contract issues that all have to be put in context. So that I think they did as much as they could at this time. And I know they will continue to revisit it.

  • 12:17:30

    NNAMDIHere is Mindy in D.C. Mindy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:36

    MINDYYes. My question has to do with buses and the fact that people are getting on not wearing masks. They're sitting very close to other passengers. And I wonder what role we can ask of the bus driver. I know that he or she doesn't want to get into an altercation with passengers. But really it's not very safe to be that close to people without masks.

  • 12:17:58

    NNAMDIIndeed. Ana on Tweeter also wants to know what Metro will do to address overcrowding on buses during the pandemic. According to another Tweeter user, James, some of the buses are dangerously overcrowded during the pandemic. Paul Wiedefeld.

  • 12:18:11

    WIEDEFELDWell, in the overcrowding issue as I mentioned earlier to Andrew, we will be providing more service out there come mid-August when we have the personnel to do it. So that will constructively address that. And in terms of overcrowding we have given the authority for our bus operators to bypass stations or stops, unfortunately, if it is too crowded. But there's a balance there for sure. And in terms of people -- from Mindy's request or issues, I mean, that's an issue that we all face, you know, in the community. Whether you go to a store or wherever you go, you know, this is social commitment from everyone that they have to meet.

  • 12:18:50

    WIEDEFELDIt's very hard for anyone to enforce this much less a bus operator that has his or her own duties to be doing. We don't want them interacting at that level. That's not what they should be doing. And it is a challenge for society. It's not just limited to transit. And we all have to step to the plate and do what's best for everyone. And I think that's what we ask from our customers and I think we should all ask that from everyone in the community as we go out and try to restart this economy.

  • 12:19:21

    NNAMDITom Sherwood.

  • 12:19:23

    SHERWOODHow are you personally responding to the virus in what you do? What effect has the virus had on you and your own family?

  • 12:19:33

    WIEDEFELDI mean, a number of things. I think like most families our home life has expanded quite a bit with people coming back home and dealing with elderly and people like that in my own family. The challenge for us at work, though, is as you know, Tom, or as you may know we also had a two alarm fire at our headquarters. So on top of everything that we're trying to deal with, you know, with everything sort of turned upside down, just literally just the physical where we could come in do work has been eliminated. We have not been able to open that building yet because of the fire damage there and the repairs that need to be made. So it's been a challenging time for everyone. So we're not immune to that either.

  • 12:20:18

    NNAMDIYesterday the Metro Board asks its staff to look into proposals for free or reduced fare travel for low income Metro bus riders. Where did that idea come from and why do you see it as a priority?

  • 12:20:31

    WIEDEFELDAs you may recall during our budget process last year we actually were moving in that direction with some things we had proposed. One was a free transfer between bus to rail. It didn't get fully funded. But it was to be partially funded, because we feel it's important that we address, you know, certain parts of the community that have either financial issues or other issues to help them get to work, get to other life needs that they have. So, you know, I think the board is moving, you know, talking in that discussion. There is obviously an operating cost associated with that that we all have to wrestle with. So we will see much more of that in the upcoming budgeting process, which starts in early fall this year.

  • 12:21:12

    NNAMDIHere is Kurt in Cottage City, Maryland. Kurt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:17

    KURTI live in Cottage City in Prince George's County. I take the T14 or the T18 to the Rhode Island Metro station and from there to work at downtown D.C. And so my question is about the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, which was closed for several months a year or two ago for repairs. When you get home at night and have to wait for one of those buses, which do not come very often. They don't come often enough. The bus shelter is there, which have been there since the 70s. They leak like sieves. You cannot sit or stand under the bus shelters when it's raining at that station. The station ...

  • 12:21:56

    NNAMDIGot to get a question. We only have about a minute and a half left.

  • 12:21:57

    KURTThat's the question. I guess it's a request. Mr. Wiedefeld, please get those bus shelters fixed.

  • 12:22:04

    NNAMDIPaul Wiedefeld.

  • 12:22:05

    WIEDEFELDKurt, I will follow-up. Just so that people do know. We actually own very few of the bus shelters you see. They're generally owned by the local governments. I will check this one. It may be ours, but the vast majority of bus shelters are actually owned by the local governments.

  • 12:22:22

    SHERWOODTom Sherwood, we have one minute left. You got final question.

  • 12:22:25

    WIEDEFELDI will follow-up on this one.

  • 12:22:27

    SHERWOODVery quickly. Are passengers on the bus system, are they still boarding from the back and do you have any plan to change that soon?

  • 12:22:33

    WIEDEFELDYes. They are still boarding from the back and we do not plan on changing that in the near future. Again, that's out of safety for our operators. Again, without one of the operators we can't even run the bus. And we want to keep them personally safe.

  • 12:22:46

    NNAMDILinda emails, "I'm 66 years old. Have been riding the Blue, Green and Red line daily throughout the pandemic. The trains have been extremely filthy. What are you going to do about cleaning and sanitizing them including the seats?"

  • 12:22:58

    WIEDEFELDWe do extensive -- if you go to our website you can see the number of things that we are doing with cleaning. Not only with our own people, but we've hired professionals that do do hygienic disinfections. So that is ongoing and you will continue to see that.

  • 12:23:16

    NNAMDIPaul Wiedefeld, thank you so much for joining us. Paul Wiedefeld is the General Manager of Metro. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray will join us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:23:43

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest now is Vincent Gray. He's a D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 7. He's also the former Mayor of the District. Councilmember Gray or Mayor Gray, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:23:53

    VINCENT GRAYThank you so much, Kojo. Thank you for having me today, and to you, Tom, good to see you and hear you as well.

  • 12:23:57

    SHERWOODGood afternoon.

  • 12:23:59

    NNAMDIBefore we get to the councilmember, Tom Sherwood, it would appear that the initiative according to a piece by Martin Austermuhle in DCist, that the initiative to change D.C.'s psychedelic plant and mushroom law is one step closer to the November ballot, because they submitted more than 35 signatures. That's about 10,000 more than they need. And if passed, the initiative would make it enforcement of the city's laws against mushrooms and psychedelic plants the police department's lowest priority. Tom Sherwood.

  • 12:24:30

    SHERWOODWell, the big news about this is that they are successful, but, you know, I think it was the first time ever they mailed out -- they spent $200,000 mailing out petitions for people to sign, have their neighbors sign or friends sign and send them back in. It was a unique effort. It was somewhat costly, but they got the money to do it from a foundation. And they've done very well, so we'll be voting probably on magic mushrooms in the fall. And maybe we can ask our next guest what he thinks about that, since he's chairman of the health committee.

  • 12:24:59

    NNAMDIVincent Gray, what do you think about it?

  • 12:25:02

    GRAYWell, can you tell me again what the issue is, Kojo?

  • 12:25:05

    SHERWOODMagic -- do you like magic mushrooms? (laugh)

  • 12:25:08

    NNAMDIWell, it's not if you like magic mushrooms. Because, frankly, the individual who has headed up the initiative has pointed out that her -- that she experienced using psychedelics to treat postpartum depression. So, that's one of the functions of it. But the whole point of it, Councilmember Gray, is that they want to decriminalize nature, is what they're saying, so that mushrooms and psychedelic plants will not be -- the laws against them will essentially not be enforced by the police department.

  • 12:25:43

    GRAYYeah, it's an interesting proposition. I'd have to know and see a lot more about it to be able to have a position that I would find defensible, Kojo and Tom. So, it'll be interesting to see if it makes it to the ballot.

  • 12:25:58

    NNAMDIYou'll probably be hearing more about it in the coming weeks and months. You've been a proponent of building a new hospital east of the Anacostia since your days as mayor. This week, the council took a first step toward that goal, granting initial approval to a deal with George Washington University Hospital to build a new hospital on the St. Elizabeth's campus in Ward 8. This has been an issue of intense debate before. Why do you think it earned the favor of your colleagues this time around?

  • 12:26:24

    GRAYWell, you know, I was glad that we had the mayor, that we had the city administrator Rashad Young and his team and the folks working with me every day to be able to get this done. I think there's such a compelling case, Kojo, for this new -- I won't say just hospital, but healthcare system. There really is no healthcare system in wards 7 and 8, where we have 150,000 people who reside.

  • 12:26:55

    GRAYSo, this will create -- you know, with a new hospital and also some additional, you know, features that will be involved as well, that this will be absolutely a game changer for people who have never had the kinds of services that they deserve. In addition to the hospital, there will be two -- built by UHS, there will be two urgent care centers. Never, in the history of the city, has there been an urgent care center in neither of Ward 7 or Ward 8. So, this is going to open the door for services that people just haven't had in the past.

  • 12:27:39

    GRAYAgain, we've got 100 and -- we got 150,000 people who live collectively in Ward 7 and Ward 8. This will be a healthcare system that will cost overtime. It will cost $383 million to bring the kinds of services that people desperately need to the communities that they live in.

  • 12:28:07

    GRAYSo many people now, gentlemen, have the requirement to find the transportation to get to healthcare that they may need. This will have, you know, a certified trauma care center. We have no obstetrical services, no maternal delivery services at all at present as part of the United Medical Center, which is going to be replaced by the new hospital. And we don't even have what's called a NICU, which is a center that would be for babies who may have -- newborn deliveries who have challenges -- have healthcare challenges. So, this will be a whole new set of services.

  • 12:29:02

    GRAYThere's nothing like it at all in either Ward 7 or Ward 8. As one, you know, has described it, it'll be like walking into Sibley Hospital, except you'll be doing it on the east end of the city.

  • 12:29:19

    NNAMDIThe D.C. Council will need to vote again on this bill before it passes. Do you have any reason to believe it won't pass in the next vote?

  • 12:29:26

    GRAYWell, I hope it will pass. We've got the money. It's all in the budget. And we've got the -- if we've got the support of the council on this next vote, then it will go through. I was ecstatic, Kojo, that everybody voted in favor of it. But, you know, as you guys know, you never know in this business whether (laugh) you'll get everybody onboard the second time around. So, this is what we're trying to do this time.

  • 12:29:54

    NNAMDIWell, you gave a shout-out to city administrator Rashad Young, which gives me the opportunity to tell you and everyone else that one of the engineers who helps to bring this broadcast working from home is our own Rashad Young and Mike Kitt (sounds like). So, I just wanted to give them a shout out. Tom Sherwood.

  • 12:30:12

    SHERWOODMr. Mayor, before I ask you about food and hunger issues, which I think are really important, I want to ask you, the hospital will take several years to build. How quickly do you envision that the two urgent care centers will be up? As you say, there's nothing there now. Without a long answer, please sir, how quickly will these two urgent care centers be up?

  • 12:30:32

    GRAYThat's a great question, Tom. The two urgent care centers will be open in about a year.

  • 12:30:39

    SHERWOODOkay, good. Another year. That's good.

  • 12:30:40

    GRAYThe design and work will be done...

  • 12:30:41

    SHERWOOD(overlapping) All right. That's good. Mr. Gray, you don't have -- we got lots of issues for you.

  • 12:30:46

    GRAY(laugh) Okay.

  • 12:30:47

    SHERWOODAll right. Catholic Charities today is doing its 10th food distribution at drive Immaculate Conception this afternoon, right now. There's always long lines there and elsewhere. They've done 500,000 meals and food service efforts since the start of this virus. The food desert in Ward 7 is, as you know, significant. When will we see grocery stores there? And if you can, keep your answer short, because I've got other questions, too.

  • 12:31:15

    GRAYWell, that, too, is an excellent question. We've been working -- I had a bill that's been passed by the council, but it has not been funded because of this coronavirus. As you guys know, we lost $720 million revenue coming into the city during this virus that's been with us now for months.

  • 12:31:35

    SHERWOOD(overlapping) It was on hold for any -- so your bill is essentially on hold at this moment?

  • 12:31:40

    GRAYIt's not -- the bill was passed. It's just that we don't have the money for it. But...

  • 12:31:43

    SHERWOODOkay.

  • 12:31:44

    GRAY...but we also have a commitment. The Skyland Town Center's being built, as we speak. It's going to have a new grocery store being built, Litl.

  • 12:31:55

    SHERWOOD(overlapping) Is that the (unintelligible) ?

  • 12:31:58

    GRAYI'm sorry, what'd you say, Tom?

  • 12:31:59

    SHERWOODWhat's the name of the grocery?

  • 12:32:01

    GRAYLitl, L-i-t-l.

  • 12:32:02

    SHERWOODLitl, Litl, okay, good. That's -- okay. All right.

  • 12:32:05

    GRAYYeah, and two Safeways. We have two Safeways there. It's not at all adequate when you look at the number of full-service grocery stores that we have in other parts of the city.

  • 12:32:16

    SHERWOODNo doubt. Let me -- let me -- Kojo, let me ask my next question. It's about the...

  • 12:32:19

    NNAMDINo.

  • 12:32:21

    SHERWOODNo?

  • 12:32:21

    NNAMDINo, go ahead, go ahead.

  • 12:32:21

    SHERWOODIt's about the 11-year-old who was shot and killed. May I go ahead? Mayor, the council has voted to cut funding for the police, and the mayor says it'll reduce the force by 200 people. You voted to take the police out of D.C. public schools. The mayor says she may ask the council to reconsider all of this in the wake of the 11-year-old Davon McNeal, who was killed in gunfire on July 4th. Do you regret your vote?

  • 12:32:51

    GRAYNo, I don't regret my vote. You know, I voted with others members on the council. I voted with councilmember Grosso who is the chair of education. He talked about some of the interactions he's had with some of the kids. And he felt that, you know -- I felt it was a compelling argument to have the -- you know, have the youth speak on the issue and to have DCPS back involved in it again. So, no, I don't regret the vote, but we're going to have to monitor very closely exactly what we do going forward with resources officers in the schools.

  • 12:33:29

    SHERWOOD(overlapping) What about the cut in the police -- excuse me, sir, what about the cut in the police department, the 200 officers by next year and the concerns the mayor raises about the violence that took the life of the 11-year-old boy Saturday?

  • 12:33:43

    GRAYWell, it's obviously very unfortunate and we had something like this happen a year ago with a young man who was killed. You know, I talk a lot about, and I hear a lot about the, you know, Black Lives Matter slogan issues. It really isn’t a slogan. It's an important point. And what we're trying to do with our hospital, with the healthcare system, I think is going to have an important impact on how we're investing our monies, our dollars in the city.

  • 12:34:13

    GRAYThey're putting money into healthcare services and to social services I think will make an impact, too. And some of the things that our police officers are asked to do really are almost like they're becoming social workers in some instances. So, this will put money further into, you know, school-based mental health, which I'm a huge supporter of. It will put more dollars into the kinds of services that police officers oftentimes are asked to perform. But they're doing things that they shouldn't be asked to do as police officers. So...

  • 12:34:47

    SHERWOOD(overlapping) But the chief...

  • 12:34:49

    NNAMDIEnough.

  • 12:34:49

    SHERWOOD...and this is my last time. The chief said this week, you know, these are -- the guys who are -- they're looking for and the one that's been arrested in this 11-year-old's death are violent guys with bad histories. And you need police officers searching for these guys and locking them up and having them prosecuted just as much as you need more maybe social workers and guidance counselors responding to domestic violence. It often is a terrible thing for someone other than a police officer to go to.

  • 12:35:20

    GRAYWell, I think we need both. I think we need both sets of services. I think we will -- you know, I think we will have -- but we will have people who have the kinds of health and social backgrounds that we've been talking about who will be available to be able to supplement what the police services are in the District of Columbia at this stage. So, I'm looking forward to the expansion of the health services, the social services in our city. And they will support what's going on in our schools.

  • 12:35:54

    NNAMDIHere's Muhammad in Hyattsville, Maryland. Muhammad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:59

    MUHAMMADThank you, Kojo, for giving me the opportunity to talk to you. I am a landlord in D.C. And what happened is since February, I got judgment for eviction in March. So far, there is nothing I could be able to do anything about the housing, spending over $2,000 a month. What I'm asking is, you know, there's a shortage of housing in Washington. Is there anything or any way that this eviction of the tenant or I know (unintelligible) landlord. Is there any solution that you would know or what could happen?

  • 12:36:52

    NNAMDIMuhammad, let me ask you a question. Why would you want to evict tenants in the middle of a pandemic?

  • 12:36:58

    MUHAMMADNo. What happened is before the pandemic, they refuse to pay.

  • 12:37:04

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have...

  • 12:37:05

    MUHAMMADThe judgment was already given to me from the court.

  • 12:37:10

    NNAMDIAllow me to have Councilmember Gray respond.

  • 12:37:12

    GRAYWell, I'm sorry, Muhammad, that I have to agree with Kojo, and this is the question. And that is the thing that we don't want to have happen is that, in the middle of the pandemic, the likes of which we've never experienced before, that why would we want to have people on the street with no place to go? We worked hard as a council to try to be able to create opportunities for people to stay where they are and stop evictions to the extent we possibly can.

  • 12:37:41

    GRAYWe're just putting money into the emergency, you know, real -- property program in the District of Columbia, as well, to try to stem the possibility of people being evicted. So, I would ask you to try to work with us, Muhammad, and...

  • 12:38:00

    NNAMDI(overlapping) I was about to interrupt, Councilmember Gray, and ask what work with us means. Because Muhammad is probably a small owner of property in the District. He's obviously not a corporate giant renting huge buildings. Is there anything the council can be doing to help people like Muhammad, small owners of properties in the District who themselves find themselves financially strapped?

  • 12:38:26

    GRAYWell, certainly the emergency rental assistance program is one option that's available to landlords to be able to help out, you know, with being able to help make the rent, you know, where people are suffering a hardship. The landlords themselves are suffering hardships. We understand that, but we're also trying to make sure that people don't wind up without a roof over their head. What will we do, at that point, if people have no place to go?

  • 12:38:55

    GRAYSo, we're trying to keep the roof over peoples' heads, at this stage, recognizing that we -- and we've done some of this already -- to put dollars in the hands of landlords, so that they don't wind up, you know, having a hardship where they can't meet the obligations that they have.

  • 12:39:16

    NNAMDILet's talk budget. This week, you voted against Councilmember Charles Allen's proposal to modestly increase taxes on the city's wealthiest residents to pay for a low-income housing initiative. What was your reasoning?

  • 12:39:29

    GRAYWell, the reasoning is that I'm not sure that we're in a position at this stage to raise taxes. We -- I heard the arguments that were made, and at the end of the day, I just felt like we were not in the position at that stage to raise taxes for people. We've got lots of challenges that we're facing in the city, at this stage. Again, as I indicated before, we are -- we lost, this year, $722 million in revenue coming in. We're slated to lost a similar amount -- identical amount of money next year. And, you know, we're trying to keep our businesses operating as much as we possibly can. So, I just felt like raising taxes at this stage wasn't the best solution to move forward with at this point.

  • 12:40:23

    NNAMDITom Sherwood.

  • 12:40:25

    SHERWOODMr. Mayor, there was a news story today that FedEx has said it will take its name off the Washington football team's stadium in Prince George's County by next year if the team doesn't change its name. As mayor, you sought to bring the team back to town, with the team paying its own money to build the stadium at the site of RFK. Do you -- if the team changes its name, would you still support having the team come back to RFK, build it at its own cost? Or has the city moved on from the Washington football team?

  • 12:40:59

    GRAYWell, I certainly do not support the team coming back with the current name. I was...

  • 12:41:04

    SHERWOOD(overlapping) Okay. Assuming they do.

  • 12:41:06

    GRAYWell, assuming they do change the name...

  • 12:41:10

    SHERWOODYes.

  • 12:41:10

    GRAY...there are a lot of things that are going on, at present, at RFK. We've got other amenities that are being developed there. I think we may be at the stage now of moving on. I don't know why Dan Snyder has been so resistant to changing the name, which is very offensive to lots of people, including me. So, I think that train may have left the station, at this stage. I'm certainly willing to hear...

  • 12:41:36

    SHERWOOD(overlapping) it's your Ward 7 -- the stadium is in your ward. You've been a big proponent in the past. If the train has left the station to the point of moving on, I think you just made some news.

  • 12:41:48

    GRAY(laugh) I don’t know whether it's making news or not, Tom. I do know that...

  • 12:41:55

    SHERWOODLet the news people decide that.

  • 12:41:58

    GRAYIt's time for him to change the name of that team. It should've come long before now. And we shouldn't have to, you know, have people threatening to take their dollars somewhere else in order to get him to change it. It's a moral issue that's involved here, and he seems to be resistant to that. And he should change the name without the question of whether we're going to build a new stadium or not.

  • 12:42:22

    NNAMDIYou opposed moving funds from the streetcar expansion plan in northeast to repairs in the public housing. What's your reasoning behind that?

  • 12:42:30

    GRAYWell, first of all, we've made a number of commitments to folks about the streetcar system. The streetcar basically, right now, is a conveyance that runs from right around Union Station out to Oklahoma Avenue. This -- we know, and I know from my own visits to other places like Portland, Oregon, for example, where the streetcar system can bring additional amenities, additional economic development. And that's what we're trying to capture, at this stage. And that is the opportunity to bring more amenities like the full-service grocery stores that we were talking about earlier.

  • 12:43:10

    GRAYWe should be in a position to be able to have opportunities for people to get, you know, closer to downtown, to be able to go from east to west in the city, readily. And that's what these streetcars will bring. So, I heartily support being able to invest more in our housing, but we also need the kind of transportation that will get people to what, hopefully, will be jobs coming back to the District of Columbia that we will need to do and invest in. And that's why I'm supporting the streetcar at this stage, to be able to continue to have the opportunity to grow another transportation system that we have promised people. It just hasn't come.

  • 12:43:57

    GRAYAnd not only that, this is dollars that are being invested in fixing the Whitlock Bridge, too, which goes from roughly 295 over to Minnesota Avenue. That bridge desperately has to be fixed. And dollars would've been removed that would've had us to make the kind of investments we have to make there, as well. So, it's an opportunity to have another form of transportation. It's an opportunity to have the kind of amenities that we know people desperately need and should have in Ward 7.

  • 12:44:28

    NNAMDIHere is Heather, in Ward 1. Heather, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:44:33

    HEATHERThank you. Councilmember, the weekend of June 26th through the 28th, I interviewed five of your constituents who ride the 90 bus between Ward 8 and Ward 3. In other words, they are crossing the entire city for work. And over those three days, there was a diversion of the buses around, because three blocks of 18th street were closed entirely to two-way traffic. And this seems very unfair for essential workers, when there was a compromised solution that was put on the table back in May. I wanted to encourage you to inquire into any repeat weekends of what was called a streetery on (unintelligible) ...

  • 12:45:23

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Oh, you mean 18th Street in Adams Morgan.

  • 12:45:26

    HEATHERThat's right. It's a connecting arterial. And even though...

  • 12:45:31

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, I don't know the extent to which the councilmember who is no longer mayor of the entire city (laugh) is familiar with exactly what has been going on on 18th Street Northwest, but Heather has been concerned about this for some time now. So, I can only say that the councilmember need not respond to this question, if you don't know what Heather's talking about, Councilmember.

  • 12:45:54

    GRAYI appreciate that, Kojo, and I don't know. I don't know all the details of it. You know, I've found it on the news, like others. And at this stage of the game I'm representing the people in Ward 7, and I'm going to do the best job I possibly can to make sure that the people that I represent every day now have the amenities available to them that they should have. So, we're trying to create more restaurants, more eateries, more opportunities for people to do the things that they want to do in Ward 7, which we just don't have, at this point.

  • 12:46:27

    NNAMDITom Sherwood.

  • 12:46:29

    SHERWOODMayor, I just learned that Mayor Bowser actually campaigned against you in the June 2nd primary towards the end. I thought you guys had settled your political issues. You won that race with just almost 50 percent of the vote in a crowded field. Why did the mayor show up and campaign against you in support of another candidate?

  • 12:46:49

    NNAMDIYou only have about one minute left.

  • 12:46:50

    GRAYWell, I don't know that she actually did that, to be honest with you, Tom. I saw her at one of the...

  • 12:46:55

    SHERWOODWell, your staff told me.

  • 12:46:58

    GRAYWell, I saw her at one of the voting places at Hillcrest, and she actually had on a -- she actually had on a hat for -- which I certainly didn't -- wasn't surprised at that -- but she was there with a hat on for Brandon Todd. And I spoke to her at some length while she was there. And I didn't see her campaigning for anybody other than, you know...

  • 12:47:20

    SHERWOODWell, in defense of her own campaign that she was -- well, have you guys -- are you guys still all good? We're out of time. Are you still good with the mayor?

  • 12:47:27

    GRAYYeah, we work -- we worked closely on this hospital. I'm excited to work with her and her team on this hospital. And I can't imagine that she would've, you know, been campaigning for somebody else while she was working to help make this hospital a reality, which I am delighted at that.

  • 12:47:45

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all...

  • 12:47:46

    SHERWOODThat's why I asked the question.

  • 12:47:47

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Vincent Gray is a D.C. councilmember representing ward 7. He is also the former mayor of D.C. Mayor Gray, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:47:56

    GRAYThank you so much, Kojo. And thank you, too, Tom.

  • 12:47:59

    NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up Monday, public health experts say wearing a mask in public will reduce the risk of people getting sick from the coronavirus. So, why is mask-wearing so hotly debated? Dr. Leana Wen joins us to discuss that. Plus, why does a stinkbug stink? Why does a firefly light up? For all your summer insect questions, Kojo for Kids brings you the Bug Guy. Adults can listen, but only kids can call in. That all starts on Monday, at noon. Until then, have a wonderful weekend. Tom Sherwood, plans?

  • 12:48:31

    SHERWOODTour Ward 5.

  • 12:48:34

    NNAMDIOh, not another tour of your refrigerator?

  • 12:48:37

    SHERWOODNo, I'm getting fat.

  • 12:48:39

    NNAMDI(laugh) You all have a wonderful weekend, and thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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