credit: D.C. Council

On Nov. 19, the D.C. Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment voted 4-1 to advance a bill that would simultaneously launch a study of the needs and solutions for public restrooms in the city while piloting two proposed programs on a small scale.  

The bill would form a task force to conduct the research in a year’s time. Two small pilot programs would also test construction of free-standing restrooms in two locations chosen by Mayor Muriel Bowser and test an incentive program to have businesses open their restrooms to the public in one business improvement district, also selected by the mayor. 

The Committee on Health must also vote on the bill. If they elect to move it forward, the full D.C. Council will likely vote on the legislation on Dec. 4 and Dec. 18. If it is not passed this year, the legislation would need to be reintroduced in 2019. 

  

Since 2014, a small group of community activists from the People For Fairness Coalition has met weekly and pushed for access to public restrooms in downtown D.C., resulting in a bill introduced by Councilmembers Nadeau, Silverman and White in April 2017.  

 The legislation had called for the creation of 10 public restrooms in the District, as well as a District-wide financial incentive program to encourage private businesses to make their restrooms available to the public for free.  

[Read more: Activists petition community to support a D.C. Council vote on public bathrooms in 2018] 

The committee adjusted the bill in response to concerns that implementing two large-scale programs before the working group concluded its report was too risky. To address this, Councilmember Cheh announced at the Nov. 19 hearing that the legislation has been adjusted to instead launch pilot programs that are reduced in scope.  

Councilmember Brandon Todd asked for clarification, saying he had not read all of the details of the updated bill in advance. Cheh explained the two pilot programs will run concurrently with the working group to determine whether it makes sense to expand them city-wide.  

“The committee believes that these reports in conjunction with the working group’s findings will provide the council with the information to expand these programs in future legislation,” Cheh said.  

The Office of the Chief Financial Officer estimated that implementation of these two programs would cost about $336,000 in Fiscal Year 2019 and about $722,000 over the four-year financial plan outlined in the bill.  

Todd was the only dissenting vote. Refraining from describing “graphic details,” Todd said during the quorum that he had spoken with a city official in Seattle, Washington — where a different model of standalone public restrooms was used more than a decade ago — who told him the restroom situation there has been detrimental.   

“I support having restrooms available to the public,” Todd said during his remarks at the hearing on Nov. 19. “However… rather than rushing into what could be a messy and costly mistake, I urge a detailed study and report to better understand the need and how it can be addressed.” 

Todd added that he does support the program that would offer financial incentives to private businesses that make their restrooms available to the public.   

After the hearing, Marcia Bernbaum of the People For Fairness Coalition e-mailed all five committee members to say PFFC is “totally in agreement” with the version of the bill they passed but took issue with Todd’s comparison to Seattle. 

“It is true that Seattle installed five Automated Public Toilets at great expense (about $1 million each) and that they encountered serious issues and had to close them down. What Councilmember Todd did not share is that, after a great deal research, Seattle has decided to install a Portland Loo in 2019 (at much less expense) which has been designed with crime prevention provisions.” 

The number of businesses closing their bathroom doors to non-customers has increased over the last few years, according to PFFC’s Public Restroom Initiative, the group that first lobbied for the bathroom bill. The team reported that in 2015, 43 of the 85 businesses they visited allowed individuals who were not customers to use their restrooms. In 2016, the number had dropped to 28. By 2017, only 11 businesses permitted individuals who were not customers to use their restrooms.

D.C. residents have chimed in on Twitter to express their opinions on the public restroom bill. What do you think? Tweet Street Sense Media at @streetsensedc