7 Ideas for Solving DC Problems


In the Spring of 2006, DC Appleseed, a major local non-profit organization sponsored by many of the nation's finest lawyers, decided to hold a competition with the Washington Region for the best big (but short) ideas for solving DC's multitude of problems. Their intent is to assemble the responses by topic within the context of "Campaign 2006" , and offer it to the candidates for elective office in DC this Fall. DC Appleseed hopes thereby to shape the campaign around major issues identified by concerned regional citizens. NARPAC's president submitted seven ideas that this organization believes are worth pursuing.

1. DC Has Only One First-Order Problem: Poor Adults

DC has many aggravating problems, from heavy traffic to high taxes, but only one long-term root problem: a very disproportionate share of the region's poor adults. Statistically, this results in significantly more poor kids, poorer health, fewer parents per kid, poorer educational outcomes, higher crime, more drug dependence, higher unemployment, more homeless, and more residential blight. Financially, this results in too few taxpayers and city revenues, a skewed spectrum of taxpayers, far too large a share of tax revenues devoted to all forms of welfare payments, and too little left for city maintenance and modernization. If 30,000 poverty-stricken households could be gradually transformed into 30,000 middle-income households, most of DC's globally- embarrassing problems would, over time, dissipate.

The solution lies in breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty through two related efforts: 1) keep teens from dropping out of school; and b) redeem the city's young adults (up to 25 yrs old) who have dropped out of both school and society. Better educated young adults will: adopt a more productive, mainstream lifestyle; shed welfare; be much better (older) parents; and produce kids more receptive to sharing the American dream. First, this will require much stronger high schools. Second, it will require a major joint effort from the public, private, corporate, and non- profit sectors to create a new range of learning centers, some residential, some catering to young moms, some specializing in ex-cons, all devoted to awakening young adults' potential to succeed, and providing rewarding jobs when they do.

2. DC's Basic Transportation Problem: a Counterproductive, Near-Term, Small-Time Mind Set

Since its inception, the leadership of DC's separate DDoT has assumed a small-town mind set seeking to isolate America's capital from its burgeoning neighboring jurisdictions. Ignoring DC's globally-unique role as the hub of our national capital metro area, DDoT perpetuates an outdated vision of DC as an insular cluster of quaint little neighborhoods. This xenophobic approach is demonstrated in its autonomous section of DC's forthcoming long-range "Comprehensive" Plan. Avoiding the more difficult challenge of remaining a liveable city despite its inescapable regional, national, and global responsibilities, DDoT plans to barricade DC behind bicycle lanes and fixed trolley tracks on main arteries, and reject the American automobile.

The District government should adopt three fundamentals excluded from the Comprehensive Plan draft. First, transportation issues cannot be divorced from city planning and economic development issues: transportation is key to future growth and prosperity, but only in support of broader objectives. Second, the car, a success symbol for DC's increasing numbers of adult residents, commuters, and visitors, must be accepted not as a nuisance but as a major source of city revenues and viability: off-street, high-density, variable rate, automated parking facilities can enhance city growth significantly. Third, DC's first-class Metrorail system must be expanded within the city, while alleviating its already-limiting, highly vulnerable, downtown bottlenecks: an "Inner Circle Line" skirting the downtown area is both practical and achievable with federal and regional funding. Absent these changes, DC will strangle on its own petty thinking.

3. Continue to Expand Metrorail within DC

In the late 1960's, the conceptual layout of DC's new world-class Metrorail system assumed that "all rails should lead to downtown DC". This hub-and-spoke design has outlived its usefulness, and capacity. The suburbs have wisely created 'transit-oriented' economic development around most of their stations, and now feed so many people into DC, that DC residents have difficulty squeezing on the already-packed trains. Meanwhile, downtown and other developing nodes are expanding so that larger areas of DC will not be within convenient walking distance of stations. New concerns over terrorist attacks against our capital, point up the paralyzing impact of shutting down the three critical, already saturated, downtown stations (if only with hysteria-producing false alarms).

Alternate routes across the city that bypass downtown are sorely needed. They can also provide a circulator loop just outside the downtown area. Costs can be constrained by using existing track/tunnel components, and by using elevated metrorail segments and bridges instead of more expensive tunneling. North-south by-passes could include Friendship Heights to Rosslyn via Georgetown, and from Silver Spring to Anacostia via Stadium-Armory. East-West by-passes could run 1) from Ft. Totten to Vienna via Adams Morgan and Georgetown; 2) New Carrolton to Pentagon via Navy Yard; and 3) Landover to Alexandria via Anacostia and the new Wilson Bridge. The segments near downtown could form an "Inner Circle Loop". DC transportation planners, however, recommend no further expansion of Metrorail within the city over the next 20 years.

4. Embracing Regional Solutions to Regional Social Services Problems

If there is any "financial structural imbalance" in the Washington Metro Area, it is the disparate capacity of the suburbs and their central city to pay for needed social services. With roughly 12% of the region's population, and 8% of its GDP, DC accounts for 40% of its households in poverty. DC has essentially become the region's poorhouse. The suburbs average twelve tax- paying households per household in poverty: DC about three. The suburbs can boast several times more in household income per school-aged kid than DC. Over twice as much of DC's operating budget applies to residents in poverty compared to its neighboring suburbs. How can DC afford comparable infrastructure modernization and economic growth?

Greater regional cooperation could solve regional social problems ranging from forensics centers and trauma I hospitals, to affordable housing and special education. Simply transferring suburban wealth to perpetuate inner city poverty is counter-productive. Regional cooperation is currently limited by outdated socio-political mind sets. DC's demagogic politicos and activists pine to become an independent "state" and prefer federal handouts to regional cooperation. Suburbanites feel no federal pressures to form regional entities and are financially better off avoiding regional responsibilities. There is no metro area representation, per se, in the US Congress. Yet Congress could, if it saw fit, provide its federal assistance to surrounding state and local authorities with strings attached obliging regional cooperation. DC leadership should take the lead in proposing it.

5. Increasing Revenues from the National Capital's International Community

As host to over 160 embassies and a score of major international institutions, DC sacrifices considerable scarce revenue-producing land to satisfy the valid demands of our national capital city. Altogether, less than half of DC's acreage generates residential or commercial tax revenues. At the same time, there are large tracts of land administered by the National Park Service and the Defense Department which generate pitifully little 'value-added' by which to operate and modernize municipal functions. Finally, the least developed major part of DC lies East of the Anacostia, and it sorely needs major attractions by which to anchor and stimulate further economic development.

One way to generate revenues from the legitimate "foreign presence" would be to establish an "International Mall" and enlist willing embassies and institutions to build and operate pavilions extolling each country's background and assets (essentially a permanent 'World's Fair'). This mall could also include sets of temporary residential quarters for visiting foreign students, scholars, businessmen and diplomats (similar to expanded permanent 'Olympic Villages'). The mall properties might remain US-government-owned and operated (and hence yield no tax revenues). But the attractions should substantially increase the number and/or stay-time of tourists, one of DC's biggest "industries". Obvious places to establish such a mall (of several hundred acres) would be either alongside Massachusetts Avenue, SE (in Ft. DuPont Park) or along the east bank of the Anacostia River on the grounds of the Naval Air Station or Bolling Air Force Base.

6. A Major New "Industry"for DC: the Science of Living and Dying in America

The nation's capital city has only one very large industry: government and its camp followers. As DC expands, it needs other worthwhile and recognizable functions that enhance its reputation and national, if not global, importance. DC missed the "" label, and the genetics revolution as well. But lurking just over the horizon are the enormous social and economic issues of protracted lives, and protracted deaths as well. Issues vary from a) the bureaucratic and analytical problems of social security and medicare resources, and b) the sciences (incl. genetics) of extending productive lives, and shortening terminal illnesses, to c) the mechanics (and engineering) of living longer, more independently, and less expensively with a wide variety of age-related handicaps.

Baby Boomers are already beginning to face these uncertain and relatively unexplored futures, but their problems will pale by comparison to those of their kids' generation. Other countries are already on the verge of similar social problems. While there isn't much glamor associated with being the world's geriatric capital, the need is real, and might be couched in more acceptable terms such as the National Institutes for Extended Social Security, or the Centers for Protracted Wellness. Two large government-owned properties in northern DC may soon become available for (partial?) redevelopment, and both have suitable backgrounds: the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home. Both can provide the ghosts of living beyond expectations.

7. DCPS Business Practices Need Dedicated IG and Audit Attention

There are many reasonable explanations for the poor educational performance of DCPS kids: 1) the school infrastructure is old, tired and twice as big as needed; 2) a majority of DCPS kids come from 'incomplete' as well as 'disadvantaged' homes and communities where parental and neighborhood support is seriously lacking; 3) it is difficult to attract top-notch teachers to bottom- notch poverty- and crime-stricken neighborhoods; and so forth. But there is no excuse for a continuing litany of bad, sometimes dishonest, business practices. These needless failings detract from the funding available for classroom operations, and heap further scorn on the school system's ghastly image locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. DCPS has needed strong, independent, authoritative Audit and Inspector General functions for years. They could eventually strip away one layer of embarrassing public scorn which deflects attention from DCPS's more fundamental problems.

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This page was updated on May 15, 2006



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