Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Government

US infrastructure spending, in four charts

If you've checked the news on the subject of American transportation infrastructure lately, you've probably heard that the sky is falling. It's true that Congress can't get its act together and pass a decent transportation bill, but the amount of money that's being spent isn't the problem so much as the fact that we're spending it on expanding highways instead of keeping the stuff we have in good shape.

Photo by Rhiannon Boyle on Flickr.

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office adds some useful perspective on public infrastructure spending (federal, state, and local, including water infrastructure) since 1956 target. Here are four major takeaways.

Infrastructure Spending is Fairly Stable as a Share of GDP

Measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, public infrastructure spending has been fairly stable throughout the last six decades at about 2.4 percent, reports the CBO. The most recent bump came in 2009 and 2010 because of the stimulus package, when it rose to 2.7 percent. It has declined somewhat since 2011.

All graphs from the Congressional Budget Office.

But costs have climbed

Beginning in 2003, the cost of raw materials like concrete and asphalt increased more rapidly than the prices of other goods, the CBO reports. So if you factor in these specific costs, inflation-adjusted public infrastructure spending has declined about 9 percent since 2003 (the dark blue line).

Highways Are the Biggest Category of Spending

Of the $416 billion spent on infrastructure by federal, state and local governments in 2014, about 40 percent was dedicated to highways. About 16 percent went to transit and about a third went to water infrastructure.

Spending on Expansion Has Been Moving in the Right Direction

While state DOTs still spend many billions of dollars on highway expansions that erode their ability to maintain existing roads, the situation seems getting better. In recent years, a greater share of public infrastructure spending has been going to maintenance instead of expansion. However, it's not clear how much this trend applies to highways, since the CBO included transit and water infrastructure in this chart as well.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

Mary Cheh's annual joke budget memo mocks the streetcar, endless transportation studies, and more

Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.

Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.

On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"

Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.

This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:

Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?
Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—what's another million and a half, anyway—to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.

To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.


Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.

And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.

Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."

Other biting critiques in the memo include:

  • A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
  • That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
  • A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
  • A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
  • Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
  • A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
Cheh and her staff conclude with a suggestion that if you don't find her memo funny, you "participate in some recently-legalized activities" (i.e. smoke marijuana) and then you will "find it to be, like, totally the funniest thing ever."

Hogan stalls on the Purple Line, calls it too expensive

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has still made no decision on the Purple Line (or, if he has, is refusing to announce one) while calling the project's current costs "not acceptable."

Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

Hogan had been expected to decide around "mid-May," but told the Washington Post Friday that a decision would come "in the next month sometime." This further pushes off the possible schedule for private bids and then construction, which is now totally uncertain.

Hogan did say the cost would have to be "dramatically lower" to convince him to move forward. He said that "two miles of [the line] would fund our entire school construction for the entire state."

This argument about fiscal poverty rings very hollow when Hogan just lowered tolls across the state, costing about $54 million a year.

Since the Purple Line is $153 million per mile (for one-time construction), the school construction Hogan says costs the same as two miles of the line also costs only six years' worth of the foregone tolls. Hogan could have said he'd keep the tolls high for six years to fund school construction.

The line would actually cost the state of Maryland relatively little; the federal government will provide $900 million, Montgomery and Prince George's $220 million, and hundreds of millions from the private bidders. Two miles of the Purple Line cost would only pay for school construction if schools suddenly became eligible for federal transit funding and private bidders offered to foot some of the bill.

But what we're hearing is a sadly common refrain among anti-transit, so-called "fiscally conservative" politicians. They talk big about how important it is to save money, but really mean saving money by cutting things they don't like, usually in particular things that are associated with denser, walkable, perhaps more liberal areas.

Hogan's priorities are apparently, drivers first, then students, then transit riders.

Likewise, Hogan is choosing not to give credence to studies that show significant economic growth benefits for the Purple Line.

Pete Rahn, Hogan's transportation secretary and someone who at least appears to be making some effort to find a path to approval, said after talking with bidders, he believed the project could happen for about ten percent less money. Hogan hasn't said if that is "dramatic" enough for him.

In the Post interview, Hogan also talked about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whom Hogan considers a mentor. Christie also came into office and almost immediately canceled a major transit project that had been in the planning stages for many years. New Jersey lost a lot of federal funding, and worse yet, there's now no redundancy for commuter trains coming into Manhattan; shutting down one tunnel at a time for needed repairs will cripple commuting across the Hudson.

Hogan seems poised to make a similarly short-sighted blunder for Maryland. He himself summed it up best to the Post while talking about another matter: "It's challenging to change the mind-sets of folks that believe very strongly in what they're talking about."

Mary Cheh wants to change the definition of assaulting a police officer. Here's why that's important.

On Tuesday, Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill to reform some elements of criminal justice procedure. It would change the law around "assaulting a police officer," strengthen prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence to defendants, and other things. Why does Cheh feel these laws need reforming, and what will her bill do?

Image by chriswhite313 on YouTube.

First, a quick quiz: Which of the following would be considered "assaulting a police officer"?

  1. Punching a police officer in the face.
  2. Standing behind a gate holding it closed while an officer tries to push it open.
  3. Sitting in your car grabbing the steering wheel while an officer tries to drag you out of your car.
  4. Standing at a Metro station with your hands in your pockets, refusing to take them out of your pockets when an officer commands you to.
  5. Being a Metro passenger and having transit police drag you from your wheelchair and smash your face into the ground.

If you guessed just #1, you are wrong.

All of these are cases which happened in recent years and where people were charged with Assaulting a Police Officer (APO). The DC Court of Appeals upheld APO convictions in #1, #2, and #3. The US Attorney argued #4 was APO, but the appeals court said no. In #5, charges were dropped after the incident was caught on video.

This post revises and expands on one from 2011 on this issue, when incident #5, above, was in the news.

When assault means assault

#1 is obvious. If you do that you can be charged with a felony APO. DC law § 22-405, "Assault on member of police force, campus or university special police, or fire department," reads:

(c) A person who violates subsection (b) of this section and causes significant bodily injury to the law enforcement officer, or commits a violent act that creates a grave risk of causing significant bodily injury to the officer, shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years or fined not more than $10,000, or both.
But the law contains another kind of APO, a misdemeanor, which most of us would probably not consider "assaulting" a police officer. It's more like what we think of as "resisting arrest."
(b) Whoever without justifiable and excusable cause, assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer on account of, or while that law enforcement officer is engaged in the performance of his or her official duties shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 180 days or fined not more than $1,000, or both.
To be guilty of misdemeanor APO, someone might need to only "oppose" a law enforcement officer without cause. Courts have drawn a distinction between "passive" resistance, like slumping to the ground when being arrested in a protest, versus "active" resistance against the officer's actions. That's why the court overturned a conviction in Ava Howard v. United States (#4 in the quiz), where a trial court only found Howard guilty of refusing to sit down and take her hands out of her pockets.

Riot image from 1000 Words /

When it's really just resisting arrest

But in other cases, the Court of Appeals has upheld APO convictions even without evidence of actions that the average person might consider "assault." In Dolson v. United States, Dolson ran from police and went to his own house, where he went inside a chain link fence. Dolson pushed the gate closed while the officer tried to push it open. The Court of Appeals upheld Dolson's conviction just based on this action, finding it constituted misdemeanor APO.

In Coghill v. United States, the court upheld a conviction for misdemeanor APO. Coghill was stopped by police while driving a car and refused to let police search it. He got out of the car at their instruction, but at some point got back in. Officers tried to drag him out of the car, but he braced himself against the floorboards and gripped the steering wheel.

The court held that it counts as "assaulting a police officer" just to be "actively interposing some obstacle that precluded the officer from questioning him or attempting to arrest him" and upheld Coghill's conviction.

Why does this matter?

If someone is convicted of misdemeanor APO, a future employer might look at their record and think they're quite a violent person if they assaulted a police officer. But they might have just panicked and resisted, without even touching or hitting an officer.

If the police respond to someone resisting arrest by savagely beating him or her on the ground, as has happened in some places, it can be very difficult to file a civil rights lawsuit with a conviction for "assaulting a police officer," even if it's again not really what most people consider "assaulting."

In one incident, New Jersey police beat a Rutgers student who was lying on the ground, all the while yelling "stop resisting." And in 2011, a shocking video showed transit police roughly dragging Dwight Harris, a homeless man in a wheelchair, out of his chair. They charged him with APO, but dropped the charges after the video surfaced.

It's important to keep in mind that some people really do hit police officers, and many who do should be prosecuted. Legally, "assault" also covers more than just physically punching; it includes spitting on someone or threatening to cause physical injury, for example.

Dolson, for instance, did end up hitting an officer in the face and breaking his nose later on, after the chain link fence shoving match. Neighbors say this was self-defense and the officer was choking Dolson. Without video, we can't really know.

If there hadn't been video of Dwight Harris, the charges might have stuck, too. This is the same pattern we've been seeing in high-profile cases around the country, where the presence of bystanders with camera phones belies a police claim of why they had to hit, shoot, or even kill someone.

(Disclosure: My wife works for the DC Public Defender Service. She did not work on any of the cases listed in this article, and nothing here represents the official opinion of the Public Defender Service.)

Cheh's bill makes APO into two offenses

Among other changes, Mary Cheh's bill deletes the "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer" language. Instead, it creates two, separate misdemeanor offenses, both punishable to the same degree (up to $1,000 or six months in prison).

One, Assaulting a Police Officer, would get narrower. Instead of "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer..." the law would read just "knowingly assaults a law enforcement officer." Someone accused of this would also have the right to a jury trial.

But the bill also adds language saying, "A person may not intentionally resist a lawful arrest; or prevent an individual who the person has reason to know is a law enforcement officer from making or attempting to make a lawful arrest or detention of another person."

It'd still be illegal, and a misdemeanor, to resist arrest. However, this would only apply while an officer is trying to make a "lawful arrest," not at any time whatsoever as under current law.

That's not all

APO and resisting arrest represent just one of the sections of the bill. Another would codify and expand prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence, especially evidence that could help the defendant. One section would make more information available to the Office of Police Complaints, which handles—you guessed it—complaints against police.

Another would set stricter standards for how police get eyewitnesses to make identifications, ensuring that if the witness is looking at a set of photos, for instance, the process doesn't unfairly bias the witness toward picking out the person the police have in mind.

This bill is just one of many that councilmembers introduced at the latest legislative session. Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) now chairs the judiciary committee and will decide whether to hold a hearing on the bill. If he does (and he ought to), prosecutors and/or police may oppose some provisions, and the legislative process will determine what, if anything, becomes law.

Many schools that need renovations may not be getting them

The Bowser administration wants to postpone or eliminate funding for needed improvements at dozens of schools. At the same time, the budget for renovating the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown has ballooned to $178 million.

Photo of classroom from Shutterstock.

Mayor Muriel Bowser's proposed budget for capital improvements would delay or abandon promised renovations at 20 or possibly more schools. At some of those schools, mice roam the classrooms, bathroom stalls lack doors, and halls are dim and dingy. One has no walls between classes.

DC Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the education committee has proposed new guidelines for funding school renovations. He's asking for community input through an online survey that ends tomorrow.

While the budget would cut or delay many future renovations, it also seeks increases for projects that are already in progress or about to begin, including an additional $30 million for Ellington. That would bring the total cost of the renovation to about $300,000 for each of the 600 students at the application-only high school. Officials have explained that it's costly to create a "world-class performing arts space" while respecting the historic nature of the 19th-century building.

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has criticized the way school renovations are scheduled, saying it has more to do with "how loudly your community screams" than with objective criteria. Now Councilmember David Grosso, who is reviewing Bowser's proposed budget as chair of the Education Committee, is trying to bring some rationality to the process.

"I can't in good conscience urge my colleagues to pass this capital budget as is," Grosso said at a committee hearing two weeks ago.

The Washington Post has put the number of renovation projects that are delayed at "more than a dozen" or "nearly twenty." But education activist Matthew Frumin says that the total number of projects that are either delayed or eliminated is 45.

Proposed criteria for renovations

Grosso would prioritize schools that haven't recently been modernized and are in bad condition. He would also look at the size of a school's current and potential enrollment.

Grosso has posted a survey online, asking the public to weigh in on his proposed priorities and also suggest others. The deadline for responding is Friday.

Grosso would also ask how well a school's facilities "support teaching and learning." That criterion apparently refers to architectural features like the open-classroom layout at Orr Elementary School in Ward 8.

Decades ago, DCPS tore down the walls at some elementary schools, in accordance with a then-fashionable theory that it would improve learning. Not only has that theory come into question, some also argue that schools without interior walls are unsafe because teachers and students have nowhere to hide in the event of an intrusion.

Orr may be the most egregious example of a school that has long been in need of modernization. In addition to the lack of walls, families and students say the building is infested with mice, the playground is dangerous, and parts of the ceiling are falling down.

A year ago, then-Councilmember Bowser signed a pledge promising "to fight for Orr's modernization to begin immediately" and "to hold accountable those who further delay modernizing the school."

Dismay in Ward 6 and elsewhere

Bowser's proposed delays in funding have upset other school communities as well. The budget would push back renovations of two Ward 6 middle schools, Jefferson and Eliot-Hine, from 2016 to 2019. Many parents in Ward 6 abandon neighborhood schools after elementary school, and activists have seen improving local middle schools as crucial to keeping those students in the feeder pattern.

The delay "undermines years of work," according to Joe Weedon, the Ward 6 representative to DC's State Board of Education. Weedon tweeted a photo of a girl's bathroom at Eliot-Hine that showed general disrepair and stalls without doors.

The Ward 3 SBOE member, Ruth Wattenberg, tweeted a photo that showed a bathroom at Murch Elementary School in Ward 3 doubling as the nurse's office. The budget would also delay funds to renovate Murch, which has long been overcrowded.

Cost overruns and high school spending

According to Frumin, the increases in funding for current renovation projects show that DC either underestimated construction costs or that those costs are rising—or both. But, he says, the Bowser administration hasn't increased cost estimates for renovations it's planning to delay.

If history is any guide, future costs will climb as well. And Frumin says the District may not be able to borrow enough money to pay those additional costs. Current law limits the amount DC can use to repay loans and interest to 12% of total expenditures, he says. Even the funding levels in the proposed budget would bring payments close to that limit, with 11.8% going to service debt beginning in fiscal year 2019.

Even if Grosso is able to reinstate some delayed renovations, Frumin says, the cap on debt payments means DC won't be able to fund future renovations unless it changes the law or finds money elsewhere in the budget so that it doesn't have to borrow money to finance them.

One problem is that over the past several years DC has spent huge amounts of money renovating high schools, many of which are under-enrolled.

Ellington isn't under-enrolled, and it's undoubtedly a valuable institution that has incubated significant artists. Still, it's hard to justify spending vast amounts of money renovating the school at a time when needs are dire elsewhere.

Nor does it make sense for Ellington to remain in the building that currently houses it. That building, just north of Georgetown, used to be a neighborhood high school called Western.

If it became a neighborhood school again, it could draw off some of the students currently assigned to Wilson High School and relieve the serious overcrowding there, while still allowing space for out-of-boundary students at both schools. And presumably it would cost less to equip an old, historic building to function as an ordinary high school than to turn it into a world-class performing arts space.

Ellington, meanwhile, could move to a more central and accessible location. That would make sense for a school that draws its student body from across the District. Observers have made these suggestions before, and it's not clear why authorities haven't taken them seriously.

Grosso's proposed criteria for deciding which schools to modernize make sense, but they may not be enough to make people think twice about the Ellington renovation. If he truly wants to bring rationality to the decision-making process, he'll figure out a way to avoid such a huge waste of needed funds before it's too late.

Correction: The original version of this post said the proposed budget delays funds for Murch Elementary School. In fact, renovation funds for Murch have been delayed for years, but the proposed budget fully funds a renovation at Murch that is slated to begin next year.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Support Us