Posts in category Government
The city routinely bids public land out to private companies. Instead of money, the city demands amenities like affordable housing, workforce development, or a library. Sometimes, these deals work well. Sometimes, they're just a bad deal, or developers renege on promises.
WAMU reporters Patrick Madden and Julie Patel have been delving into this issue in a series this week. Their Tuesday and Wednesday installments look at the ways public land deals and subsidies can go wrong.
Their week-long series frames the issue around the inappropriate influence of money in politics. If campaign donors get a leg up in the competition for deals, that is a serious problem, and good for Madden and Patel for giving it attention. However, campaign cash is only one of several possible reasons these deals can turn out bad. At the same time, they can also bring valuable benefits as well.
Land deals aren't just a giveaway
The Tuesday headline was "Million-Dollar Properties, $1 Deals." The lede talks about 5 projects that went to Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction. "The appraised value of all this public land, according to city records: $17.5 million. The price paid by the developers to the city, a little more than a parking ticket: $88."
Sounds like a massive handout! Where can I get a few acres for a buck? But later, Madden explains that it's not quite so simple. The deals come with big strings. In particular, they often have to build permanently affordable housing.
Certainly there's some profit in these deals, and if that profit goes to the biggest donors, that's a big problem. However, Donatelli's profit isn't anywhere close to the $17,499,912 that the intro might lead people to believe.
Madden gives a table of the top 5 land deals:
|Project||Payment to DC||Value of land||Contributions|
by dev. team
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||$194,045.00|
|West End (Library & Fire Station)||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||$127,295.00|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00||$123,646.00|
|Minnesota-Benning (Phase 2)||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||$122,076.00
This table isn't really, complete, however, without factoring in what the development teams have to spend on the public amenities that go into the buildings.
|Project||Pmt. to DC||Value of land||Public amenities|
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||20% affordable housing|
C Street & plaza
|West End||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||New library, fire station|
|The Wharf||$1.00||$95,000,000.00||20% affordable housing|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00|
|Minnesota-Benning||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||100% affordable housing|
What makes a good deal?
Figuring out how much those public amenities are worth, however, is the tricky part, and whether the government is getting a good deal. People often disagree about how much affordable housing is fair. In the West End, DC is giving Eastbanc two parcels, which now contain a library and fire station. Eastbanc can build housing, but has to also build a new library and fire station.
Eastbanc is also building 42 units of affordable housing with an additional $7 million subsidy from the city. DC's zoning commission then let Eastbanc out of the Inclusionary Zoning affordable housing requirement on one of the two parcels, after the developer and officials argued that the value the city is getting from the new library and fire station uses up all the value of the property.
Cheryl Cort thinks that despite the IZ exception, this is probably the best deal we can get. A library advocacy group Ralph Nader founded, the DC Library Renaissance Project is suing to stop the project, arguing that DC should have held out for more affordable housing. Many neighbors want the library, already and think the Nader group is going too far. There's no definitive way to know who's right.
Under the current leadership of DMPED's Victor Hoskins, the city has been seeking less affordable housing from its public land deals, and more direct revenues.
Sometimes public officials don't push for important amenities
DC economic development officials are often quite eager to get a deal done, even at the cost of important amenities. At Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, a DDOT plan for the area recommended a new road connection to expand the grid around Minnesota Avenue Metro and a highly congested intersection.
One of the two bidders included the connection, while the winner, Donatelli, did not. Representatives of Mayor Fenty's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) then joined Donatelli in lobbying against the concept or even reserving the right of way for a future street. Maybe it was too expensive or difficult, or maybe it was an important amenity that officials just didn't bother to push for.
Madden and Patel discusses some other problems with public land development deals like this. A law requires the developers to hire small and minority-owned businesses. Sometimes they don't. (Other times, those companies are just shells that give a payout to owners while a larger firm actually does the work.)
A WAMU investigation of 110 D.C. developments that received $1.7 billion in subsidies found:The series has an overarching thesis that much of this comes about because the developers are dishing out campaign cash. That certainly may be part of it, but it's not the only reason. Plus, Aaron Wiener plotted donations against the size of deals and found only a weak correlation.
- Flaws with benefits pledged for about half
- A third missed requirements on hiring local businesses, or the city didn't have paperwork for them
- Another 15 percent downsized or delayed benefits, costing the city millions in lost revenue and others arguably didn't need the subsidy in the first place
- Less than 5 percent of the subsidies approved were for the city's poorest areas, wards 7 and 8.
Cash probably does have an effect. So do other factors. Sometimes economic development officials or politicians just want to get the deal done because a ribbon-cutting is appealing while a project sitting unfinished is a hassle.
Public land deals, though often bungled, are still necessary
Madden says, "Activists and even some council members have asked why the city just doesn't hold a public auction for these properties and award them to the highest bidder." That's an option, but then there would be no amenities. Where would the new library go? Making it part of a larger mixed-use project is probably the best way to use the land, since a library doesn't need to take up an entire building. Wouldn't we be better off with a broader mix of uses that maximize the value of this site?
DC could just rent space in an office building for a library, perhaps, but is that space going to be well-suited for a library and in the right location? Plus, that would mean library rent goes up as neighborhoods become more desirable, creating a risk that future budget cuts imperil libraries entirely instead of just shortening their hours. Meanwhile, there's definitely no spec building out there that can fit a fire station.
Others, like Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, feel that public land should never go to private uses. She'd like DC to keep all of the publicly-owned land for schools, libraries, and so on. Many other activists also view any public-private partnership deals with suspicion, and don't want a private company building a library.
These public-private deals, imperfect as they are, seem to be a compromise between these two views. The public gets something for its land, but the land can also accommodate housing and offices when the public doesn't need every square foot for public use.
Still, it's important that public officials push to get the best deal for the city, and ensure that winning bidders keep the promises that helped them win bids in the first place. When officials don't, sometimes it's because of campaign cash, but there can be many other reasons as well, which are just as important to combat.
Starting Monday, Metrorail riders can purchase a "short trip" pass online or at a fare machine and apply it to their SmarTrip cards. It's a big improvement for Metro customers that commute regularly and use Metro on the weekends or for additional trips in the evenings.
The pass costs $35 and is good for one week. It covers all off-peak trips and the first $3.50 of peak trips. If you take a trip costing more than $3.50, the difference comes out of the stored value on your SmarTrip.
Metro already offers SmarTrip passes that give rail riders unlimited rides of any length. Those cost $15 for one day, $57.50 for a week and $230 for 28 days. Those are useful for riders taking longer, more expensive trips. But those who only ride a few stops won't find that pass worthwhile. These new "short trip" passes are much cheaper because they don't cover long trips that riders may not need.
"Short trip" passes were previously available only as a paper farecard. If you took a trip of more than $3.50, you would have to use the Exitfare machine to pay the exact fare when leaving. Putting the pass on a SmarTrip card is much more convenient for riders who take the occasional longer trip, because the faregates can automatically calculate and deduct the extra fare.
Next, consider discounts and even passes for even shorter trips
You can also subscribe online to have the pass automatically renew when the old one is about to expire. For some riders, this is a good option. But since the pass costs the equivalent of 10 rides, it's not such a good deal that you'd want to set it and forget it, which could mean you'd end up buying one even on weeks with work holidays or vacation. I'd like to see a monthly pass with a discount, so that more riders would find it worthwhile to just buy passes automatically even around holidays.
Now that Metro's figured out how to implement a pass where people pay and get trips under a certain amount free, they could even try offering passes with a threshold below $3.50. For example, a pass that costs $100 per month and allows all trips under $2.50 each way for free might be very popular among riders that live in DC.
Give credit for bus transfers
One downside to the "short trip" pass is that it doesn't discount transfers between bus and rail. WMATA representatives have previously said that allowing transfer discounts to pass holders would be like giving discounts on top of discounts.
However, the transfer discount used to be available for pass holders when WMATA used paper transfer slips. When the WMATA Board approved replacing them with SmarTrip tracking, there was no discussion about eliminating the discount as well.
The discount isn't really a "discount," anyway. It's a recognition that a trip that uses bus and rail is really one trip on two modes, and the fare probably shouldn't be the same as two totally separate trips. You don't pay double the rail fare if you transfer between rail lines. In many cities, like New York, a bus plus rail trip costs the same as just one trip alone.
WMATA should restore the transfer discounts for all pass holders, and give riders with a rail pass the same reduced fare on the bus as any rider coming from a rail trip. Similarly, all riders should get the same fare when they transfer from bus to rail, whether or not they have a Metrobus pass.
All in all, "short trip" passes on SmarTrip are a great option, and I expect to subscribe to them in the future.
The District Department of Transportation has long been known for its effective use of social media, particularly Twitter. But more recently, DDOT has fallen short on reaching out to the public online. The DDOT Twiter feed took a particularly bizarre turn this past Monday.
Residents who tweeted DDOT with a request to fix a pothole or a question about a construction project received an unhelpful and somewhat patronizing message: "Thx 4 this Tweet! Service has been requested. Thank you for using DDOT TWITTER. Thank you for being a "Super-Citizen'!"
While DDOT always used Twitter to disseminate information and promote transparency, it was its consistently prompt responses to service requests that earned it a stellar reputation among citizens. Mark Bjorge and John Lisle, who ran the feed, displayed a wry sense of humor rarely seen coming from a government communications office.
Bjorge and Lisle both left the agency earlier this year. Since then, tweets to DDOT have been answered slowly, or not at all. When these latest boilerplate tweets started coming out on Monday, the backlash was palpable.
DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez insists that the agency is trying to get back on top of its Twitter game and has no intention of letting its social media presence continue to slide. "Those responses don't represent a new direction we're taking," she says, and went on to state that the automated replies are "not effective" and are "being addressed."
The concerns they've heard have hit home for the agency. "This brings to light the role our followers play when it comes to our communication here," says Hernandez. "They are our eyes and ears, and their feedback is critical."
That's a great outlook, but it's even better when put into practice. Since Twitter has played such a vital role in communication between DDOT and District residents over the past few years, I hoped that the department would recognize the value in bringing on other social media-literate employees after the staff changes took place. Instead, District residents have lost one of the most reliable means of communicating with the city about transportation issues.
Hernandez was unable to say whether Bjorge and Lisle had undergone any special social media training, or what kind of training is being provided to those currently at the feed's helm. She mentioned that DDOT's goal was to have more than just two people running its Twitter account, as questions and requests could be answered faster if there are more hands on deck.
Whatever the method, let's hope that DDOT's social media growing pains end soon. The agency has a great model for how to do social media right
Today, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed the transportation funding bill that passed the legislature this year. The governor also announced a list of projects that would get some of the money, including MARC expansion and studies for the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line.
The tax will start this summer, and will help fund transportation projects across the state. The increased tax was a key part of O'Malley's 2013 legislative agenda, and is expected to generate $800 million more for transportation each year.
After the governor signed the bill, his office released a list of "first round" projects that will get some of the increased revenues. This list totals $1.2 billion, but over the first 6 years, the tax should generate $4.4 billion.
Of the $1.2 billion, $650 million (54%) will go to transit. However, a large portion of that funds studies rather than actual construction. Money will go to MARC to add weekend service on the Penn Line and 2 new weekday roundtrips on the Camden Line, and to purchase new locomotives.
Here is the full list.
- $100 million for MARC enhancements, including Penn Line weekend service, 2 new Camden Line weekday roundtrips, and new locomotives.
- $280 million for final design for the Purple Line.
- $170 million for final design for the Red Line in Baltimore.
- $100 million for final design for the Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County.
- $125 million for construction of an interchange between I-270 and Watkins Mill Road in Montgomery County.
- $100 million for construction of an interchange at Kerby Hill Road and Indian Head Highway in Prince George's.
- $49 million for widening US 29 to three lanes from Seneca Drive to MD 175 in Howard County.
- $82 million for construction of an interchange on US 15 at Monocacy Boulevard in Frederick.
- $20 million for design of a new Thomas Johnson Bridge between Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
- $60 million for reconstruction of in interchange at I-695 and Leeds Avenue in Baltimore County.
- $44 million for BRAC-related construction near Aberdeen Proving Ground.
- $54 million for construction of a new interchage on US 301 at MD 304 on the Eastern Shore.
Sarah Goodyear of the Atlantic has an article for Bike to Work Week entitled "Cyclists Aren't 'Special', and They Shouldn't Play by Their Own Rules." The thesis seems to be that now that cycling is mainstream, cyclists need to behave better.
I would argue that whether or not cycling is mainstream you need to ride safely and courteously. In fact, an increase or decrease in cycling mode share shouldn't change the way you ride one iota.
Goodyear is asking cyclists to become footdroppers and thinks that more enforcement of cycling laws is what is needed for cycling to "get to the next level." I disagree which is easy to do since Goodyear offers no evidence, no data and no defense of her position. It appears to be 100% emotion-based opinion.
When I look at great cycling cities in Europe it doesn't appear to me that there is some point where increased enforcement is needed to keep growth going. Growth is fueled by better designed streets, laws that protect cyclists, and increasing the costs of driving. If anything, what I've read about Amsterdam and Copenhagen is that they don't tolerate the kinds of bad driving that are considered normal here. I don't read about ticketing blitzes.
She makes the point that many cyclists are rude or ride dangerously and that she'd like to see such behavior ticketed. I have no problem with ticketing dangerous behavior - though if we're really going to focus on the MOST dangerous behavior, that will rarely mean ticketing cyclists. And if law enforcement were to blitz cyclsits, it would likely not be for their most dangerous behavior (riding at night without lights or too fast on the sidewalk or against traffic) but rather not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign during a charity ride or at some out-of-the way intersection.
Writing about wrong-way cycling she adds,
It makes all of us look terrible and it's a real hazard. Same goes for blowing through a stop sign or red light, or blocking the crosswalk when you're impatiently waiting for the light to change. Not to mention shouting at pedestrians to get out of the way when they are crossing legally. I saw someone yell at an old lady the other day.I again assert that few cyclists actually "blow through" stop signs and lights. Yes, cyclists run them - even Goodyear - but not blowing through them.
She sees herself as an ambassador. But does anyone see themselves as a pedestrian ambassador when walking or as a driving ambassador when driving? No. Biking is not foreign, and maybe to "get to the next level" we need to stop presenting it as though it is. It is funny that she sees it this way, that she has to behave hyper-legally and as a role model only to follow it up with.
You're going to have to give up your identity as a special person who does some special activity known as cycling.Ok, if I'm not so special any longer, then how come I have to behave differently - squeaky clean - than everyone else?
You're not so special any longer.
I agree that cyclists should be safe and courteous (because I think EVERYONE should be), but not that they need to be hyper-legal in the hope that it will soothe everyone else. Because it won't. And it won't take cycling to the next level.
What will help is changing the law where it currently doesn't make sense, such as with the Idaho Stop - exactly the kind of "Special Treatment" and "own rules" that Goodyear seems to be arguing against. What will help is treating cycling as special by creating special facilities to help them get around - like bi-directional cycletracks on one-way streets or cycle-tracks. What will help is bike sharing, on street bike parking, unique zoning regulations related to bike parking, special commuter benefits for bike commuters, etc...
We're going to have to treat cyclists better and let them play by their own rules if we want to "get ot the next level."
Is it fair if bikers get benefits when motorists don't? Nope. You know what else isn't fair? Everything. Deal with it.
Cross-posted at the WashCycle.
The recent investigation into cheating in DC schools highlights a little-understood fact in the District: Our mayor has too much power. Every state-level agency charged with overseeing the mayor's activities reports to the mayor
The agency that investigates cheating, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), is charged with overseeing our schools. But OSSE also reports to the mayor, the same official who runs most of the schools they are supposed to oversee.
The same conflict exists with the state-level agency charged with overseeing job training in the District. This agency, the Workforce Investment Council (WIC), reports to the same mayor who runs job training and wants voters to see his efforts to train job seekers as successful.
Continue reading Ken's latest op-ed in the Washington Post.
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Long-term closures: A solution to single-tracking?
- Metro policy for refunds after delays falls short, riders say
- PG planners propose bold new smart growth future
- M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger
- Prince George's County struggles to get trails right