Greater Greater Washington

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We saved transit, but everything isn't peachy for everyone

This week was a very exciting one for transit supporters. Not only did we reverse the DC Council's sudden cut to streetcars, but what started out as a massive set of service cuts were whittled down to none, at least in DC and Virginia.


Bread for the City provides holiday meals.

Yes, we have shown that transit matters to the residents of the region, and politicians should cut it at their peril. Transit service is very important to the less fortunate residents of our region as well, but it's not all that matters.

Metro fares are going up substantially. It's a better outcome than cutting service, and fares will go up more at rush hours which serve people who have jobs, but most of us probably make more money than the average worker. Most of us have jobs, but many people don't.

And in Prince George's County, the region's poorest, bus service is still getting cut.

The cost of health care for an elderly parent or sick child can drive families to and beyond the brink of bankruptcy. Many people who didn't grow up in families that had computers, read to their children on a regular basis, and sent their children to top schools need training to compete for today's knowledge economy jobs. Single parents find it difficult to afford decent housing. Homeless people often suffer from mental illnesses and cost a city more in police resources than it would take to treat.

As our political voice gets louder and elected officials start to listen more closely, let's be careful not just to advocate for the needs of the most fortunate residents of the region. With transit and development, they often go hand in hand, which is one reason I enjoy advocating for these so much. But we must still be mindful of the impact of changes we champion. More condos are great, but some must remain affordable for people at all ranges of the income spectrum. Transit is terrific, but it must serve all communities and at a reasonable price.

Save our Safety Net was pushing for new tax brackets for people making over $200,000 and then $1 million per year. As a resident who might well be in one of those tax brackets depending on the stock market, I can say for sure that I would not have been packing up to leave DC if the Council had enacted such a plan.

I didn't write much about the ongoing campaign because, frankly, I didn't have time to wrap my head around all the issues. For next year, we should do better.

But covering the needs of lower-income people and communities shouldn't wait until budget time. When we have debates about things like nutrition, some comments reveal that many people are misinformed about some of these issues. (For example, obesity in poor areas has a lot to do with federal subsidies for corn and high-fructose corn syrup.) We need to be taking the time to understand what life is like for folks who don't live in the nicest DC neighborhoods and richest suburbs.

The outpouring of energy for streetcars didn't just happen because we suddenly posted about streetcars when they were about to be cut. It happened because supporters, like Sierra Club, the Downtown BID, and DDOT had been building support for months. It happened because we had been talking about streetcars for months, and debating them, so that people could make up their minds.

To make a political issue successful, it isn't enough to talk about it when the time for action has come. It's important to talk about it beforehand and educate people who are sympathetic but haven't really thought about the issue thoroughly.

While I am not an expert on poverty, I would love for some folks who are to come start a conversation on a regular basis about how we can make Greater Washington greater for its neediest residents. If that's you, let us know at info@ggwash.org.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Jamie had a killer comment a few weeks ago that GGW commentators are people who don't realize that Giant is a lot cheaper than Whole Foods.

More disturbing is Alpert's investment portfolio is making more money than I earn...

by charlie on May 28, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

Mr. Alpert, your stock market earnings are likely to be taxed as capital gains and therefore exempt from any of the ridiculously high DC taxes for high rollers, such as tax attorneys like you and me.

Hug$, Your lawyer.

by tax atty on May 28, 2010 3:17 pm • linkreport

charlie: I wish. I was factoring in salary income, plus lately it's way negative.

by David Alpert on May 28, 2010 3:18 pm • linkreport

I could not disagree more with increasing taxes on high-earners. David, while this may not drive you from the city, I can assure you it would drive others away. This is in addition to those already choosing to live in lower-taxing MD and VA. Taxes are a big part of where high-earners choose to both live and 'reside'. DC is in a unique position as a municipality to be competing with MD and VA for citizens. Higher taxes is a major disadvantage. DC should be discussing how to lower income tax rates among high-earners so they are more in line with MD and VA. The revenue from the additional residents who choose to live in DC would, over the long-term, make up for the lower tax rates.

by SE Resident on May 28, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

@SE Resident it would be nice to see some abatement of the restaurant tax.

by Steve S on May 28, 2010 3:38 pm • linkreport

It's been shown that improved transit options into poor areas has caused increases in the employment rate in those areas. Since people have access to transit, it's easier for them to find jobs outside of their economically depressed area. However, with the recent fare increases, it makes me wonder what the impact will be on the poorest commuters. Someone brought up the National Harbor employees in a previous post as an example of this.

SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) is federally run. Is there a similar federal program that provides discounted or free transit to the poor? Since federal employees already get free transit (up to a point), it seems that the infrastructure is in place to expand a similar program to cover people that would, for example, qualify for SNAP. Granted, the number of people on SNAP are probably higher than the number of federal employees with transit benefits, so the costs might be pretty high, but even a 50% cut in fares might do wonders for helping poor people get to job interviews, better grocery stores, and other things that they might not be able to currently afford to do as often or at all.

by Teyo on May 28, 2010 3:45 pm • linkreport

This is a great blog, but I'm going to tune out if you start posting about increasing taxes in the district. Stick with your current mission statement in the upper right corner.

by anon on May 28, 2010 3:52 pm • linkreport

Spend a little to help them out so we avoid spending a lot to put them on welfare?

Frame the argument like that, and there might be more takers...

by Froggie on May 28, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

@Teyo: I've wondered about this. It would be a buffer for low-income people when fares increase, if nothing else. Then fares can raise to performance rates without worrying about locking out poor riders.

It doesn't have to be a federal program, either. It doesn't even have to be a government program, necessarily -- an enterprising charity could work with Metro and the community to create a subsidy/discount program.

by Gavin on May 28, 2010 4:29 pm • linkreport

@ SE Resident DC's total income tax burden is slightly lower than Maryland's, and slightly higher than Virginia's. I'm not sure where perception of high DC taxes comes from, but it's not true.

by jcm on May 28, 2010 4:36 pm • linkreport

@jcm

The top marginal tax rates for DC, MD and VA are 8.5%, 6.25% and 5.75%, respectively:

http://www.taxfoundation.org/taxdata/show/228.html

by SE Resident on May 28, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

Teyo, there is no federal program to help people with transit costs. I think that might be a good way to help the unemployed and help transit agencies that are underfunded.

SE Resident, having rich people in a community does not benefit that community unless they are taxed.

by Helen Bushnell on May 28, 2010 4:41 pm • linkreport

@Helen Bushnell

Obviously, they need to pay taxes (everyone should). DC should just be more competitive with the proximity of choices citizens face in the Greater Washington area.

To paraphrase your argument:

Having high taxes in a community does not benefit that community unless there are citizens to be taxed.

by SE Resident on May 28, 2010 4:44 pm • linkreport

@ SE Resident That's ignores the maryland piggyback tax, the low Virginia personal exemption, and the low threshold for the top bracket in Virginia. and is a total oversimplification to boot. A better measure is to look at total tax burden for actual taxpayer situations. DC puts together a helpful comparison. It's difficult to measure, because taxes are so complicated, but ehere, for example, is their calculation for a family of 3 with 2 cars, $150K in income, and an owned house.

Income
DC 6,892
Montgomery: 8,080
PG: 7,959
Alex: 5,831
Arlington: 5,822
Fairfax: 5,813

Real Estate
DC:3,101
Mont:4,352
PG: 4,596
Alex: 3,623
Arl: 3,636
Fair: 3,945

Sales and Use
DC: 2,046
Mont: 2,087
PG: 2,054
Alex: 1,643
Arl: 1,690
Fair: 1,464

Automobile
DC: 391
Mont: 356
PG:356
Alex: 939
Arl:1,085
Fair:1,032

TOTAL
DC: 12,430
Mont:14,876
PG: 14,966
Alex: 12,036
Arl: 12,233
Fair: 12,143

by jcm on May 28, 2010 5:00 pm • linkreport

this is great news -- looking forward to the coverage.

It's important to talk about it beforehand and educate people who are sympathetic but haven't really thought about the issue thoroughly.

the education component is hugely important for myriad reasons. love it.

and even those who are not (yet) sympathetic will be effected positively -- simply talking about something can draw people in, force other media outlets to cover it, etc.

and the mid-educated can have a chance to re-examine their assumptions/beliefs.

the unsympathetic views i read from some DC-area commenters, who are more-likely-than-not to be paid with federal tax dollars (either directly or through contractors), always sticks in my craw. there's a reason the DC area unemployment rate is so low.

by Peter Smith on May 28, 2010 5:13 pm • linkreport

Maryland taxes are high. I had a friend move to DC and he said it was like get a small raise (due to a smaller withholding)

So living in Virginia without a car is the best option. No wonder Arlington is doing so well.

by mcs on May 28, 2010 5:22 pm • linkreport

Can't put my finger on it, but something in this post seems a little too self-glorifying and self-exonerating. Yes, you saved transit, and apart from this isolated case, that's by and large a good thing. But isn't a little disingenuous to say "this will help underpriveledged people," when I imagine most of the people you're talking about in this post would have put a small transit initiative near the bottom of their list of needs? Also a bit too easy to say "We care about these people," when you just rammed your desires further up the priorities list ahead of others thanks to networking ability that many of the District's neediest don't tap into. How would thos $47 million have been used differently?

Fine to congratulate yourselves, and it's honorable to promote what you're advocating, but don't pretend you're the white knight when your priviledge allowed you to serve your wants ahead of others' needs.

captcha: tersest order

by SDJ on May 28, 2010 6:09 pm • linkreport

In the past 10 years, DC's budget has increased about 70%.

The solution isn't more taxes.

The solution is reducing wasteful spending, eliminating duplicative programs and agency functions, and getting rid of idiotic regulations that do nothing more than deter businesses from setting up shop here.

One example: DC has (I think) 2 locally chartered banks. Why? Because several years ago Jim Graham amending the bank charters law to require all sorts of mandatory things locally chartered banks had to do (it essentially duplicates the requirements of the federal Community Reinvestment Act). He wanted to make sure DC residents would benefit from chartered banks.

End result? Only 1 or 2 banks are DC chartered; all other banks operating in DC are either federally chartered or chartered in other states. And DC gets the well-deserved reputation as an anti-business jurisdiction.

That's just one example off the top of my head. There are hundreds more. And yet, rather than actually doing something about updating outdated laws, our fearless elected leaders just introduce more idiotic bills mandating DC residents - regardless of their competence - be given hiring preferences in public and private jobs.

Until we have more Councilmembers that have actually spent some time running their own business - rather than the current batch of ninnies - nothing will change. And until residents - those in the populations' minority who actually pay income taxes - boot out the faux populists and general idiots on the Council, nothing will change. We can institute tax rates of 90% to try to recreate the socialist, utopian paradise that is the bankrupt Europe. But 90% of zero is still zero.

by Fritz on May 28, 2010 6:12 pm • linkreport

David Alpert wrote:

"Transit is terrific, but it must serve all communities and at a reasonable price."

This is the balanced approach we must all seek. Not just in transit, but in all we do.

by C. R. on May 28, 2010 6:55 pm • linkreport

SDJ, from personal experience I can tell you that good transit is of great benefit to someone who is not making a lot of money. Anything that you don't have to spend money on is great.

by Helen Bushnell on May 28, 2010 6:56 pm • linkreport

@Fritz Which law is that, and what's the effect of not having DC chartered banks? I don't really know anything about the subject, and would appreciate some interesting reading. Thanks.

by jcm on May 28, 2010 7:04 pm • linkreport

@Helen
How true IS that? Let's not pat ourselves on the back too much. Basically everyone who posts here lives more or less comfortably. How does transit really help the delivery man? Or the maid? Or the tow truck driver? Or the mechanic? How many truly blue collar areas are that close to a metro stop, aside from metro facilities themselves? Truth is that transit nodes typically coincide with wealthier, whiter collar areas or their complementary bedroom communities. Studies have shown that poorer people face longer and more car-dependent commutes. You might argue that giving them more transit options betters their chances for financial progress, but it just as easily gentrifies and burdens them with higher costs of living - how does development really help a renter aside from increasing their rent and forcing them to move elsewhere?

Furthermore, I remember reading a couple years ao a WaPo statistic that said the median income of a metrorail rider was over 100k and the median income for a metrobus rider was 60k. (I remember because both were tens of thousands more than I make) Both of those are more than the median HOUSEHOLD income of a DC resident (mid 50s k) So do you really think transit caters to those less fortunate?

Don't take this to mean I don't think transit is immensely valuable to a city - it is. Thank god DC has WMATA versus a sparser alternative. But by the same token, it's no good attributing credit to transit when it isn't due. Don't think you're a saint for the poor by supporting some shiny new vehicle that caters to a small part of the town (and definitely not the poorest). Can you honestly say those $47 million are better spent on supplying an already existing transit corridor with a duplicative A-to-B people mover as being far more beneficial to DC's poor than free professional education courses? Or daycare services? Or health care?

I'm not against certain rationales to promote transit projects over the ones I just mentioned, but for goodness sake: be honest about it.

by SDJ on May 29, 2010 12:05 am • linkreport

@jcm - Go to the Council website and search for the Bank Charter Modernization Act of 2007 introduced by Cheh. It refers to the chartering laws and you can then take a look at those as well.

What frustrates me about both activists and our pseudo-populist politicos is that their solution is to just demand either more taxes or more services. No one sits down and thinks how to amend current laws to bring them into the modern era. Instead, they just keep adding more laws to the pile, without ever fixing the original ones that have become a mess. It's lazy legislating and it's feel-good political activism. And it doesn't solve anything.

by Fritz on May 29, 2010 7:12 am • linkreport

@Fritz Thanks. I did as you suggested, and I can't find anything that supports your description of the situation. Here (PDF) is the Bank Charter Modernization Act of 2007. It wasn't written by Graham, and it actually removed barriers for DC chartered banks. Prior to the act, both the regulators and the council had to approve bank charters. This act removed the requirement for council approval.

Here's a contemporaneous account from Washington Business Journal. The 2007 act certainly didn't cause a lack of DC chartered banks - there were only 3 before the act was passed.

by jcm on May 29, 2010 8:46 am • linkreport

I like SDJ's observations about blogs like this putting participants' wants ahead of others' needs. So true, and a sentiment I have been trying to express often in my own comments - about the technology required for Next Bus, about the doing away with paper transfers, and other issues.

However, I agree 100 percent with Helen Bushnell that transit is at the very top or near the top of issues of concern to poor people. Reliable transit is absolutely fundamental, and without it, low income earners would not be able to work. Period.

by Jazzy on May 29, 2010 8:47 am • linkreport

@jcm - I didn't say the 2007 bill put in restrictions. I said it would give you the DC code citations for bank chartering. Take a look through those DC statutes and you'll see what I'm talking about. Cheh's 2007 bill was a step in the right direction; but there's still a long way to go.

by Fritz on May 29, 2010 3:47 pm • linkreport

I'm not against certain rationales to promote transit projects over the ones I just mentioned, but for goodness sake: be honest about it.

who is lying/being dishonest/etc.? the author of this post? which commenter(s)? if you're going to call someone a liar, then please name names and cite a specific lie or misleading statement. thanks.

The solution is reducing wasteful spending, eliminating duplicative programs and agency functions, and getting rid of idiotic regulations that do nothing more than deter businesses from setting up shop here.

we have tried starving the government of revenues for the past 30 years, and it's killing us - literally. now it's time to go back to something that works -- having people pay their fair share.

as far as idiotic business regulations go, however, there is plenty of work we can do, but small business owners are not organized against the people who are really hurting them -- big businesses. small businesses should create their own 'Small Business Chamber of Commerce' and lobby the local and federal governments to make it easier for small businesses (who are responsible for most hiring in America) to start hiring again. i know some 'small business chambers' exist, at least in name, but the first website of this nature that i visited was sponsored by Verizon Wireless, so i think there's still plenty to be done.

We should build-in a natural aversion/deterrence/prevention of businesses getting too large (even before they get to the point of 'too big to fail', which of course, must be outlawed). Companies that wish to grow beyond a certain size should require special permission, etc. -- the way, back in the day, corporations were only granted a limited charter to perform certain tasks for certain time periods, etc.

Self-described libertarians and organizations like the Cato Institute should be railing against anti-small business, pro-big business regulations in every city and town in America, starting at the local/metro level -- instead, they're railing most against regulations which help protect the profits of the largest mega-corporations in existence.

There's a very easy, systematic way to go about this -- analyze the current set of rules and regulations for how they disproportionately adversely affect small businesses (more than they do big businesses), and change them to favor small businesses. Simple. Effectively, we want a progressive tax system based on the size of the business -- the bigger the business, the heavier it should be taxed -- smaller businesses should be taxed little, if at all. Right now, it's the exact opposite - just like our tax system - highly regressive. It's a great way to concentrate power, and very bad for most people, most businesses, etc.

What frustrates me about both activists and our pseudo-populist politicos is that their solution is to just demand either more taxes or more services.

we don't necessarily need to raise taxes at all -- we can lower them like Obama did -- we can just have the rich start paying their fair share, so taxes for almost everyone else can go down (not that the rich are anywhere near paying their fair share yet).

No one sits down and thinks how to amend current laws to bring them into the modern era. Instead, they just keep adding more laws to the pile, without ever fixing the original ones that have become a mess.

it often takes new laws to amend/fix current laws.

And it doesn't solve anything.

i've seen lots of laws passed that have solved all sorts of things. take the health care bill -- reasonable people can disagree whether it was better than it was worse, but it's going to help solve the problem of 'pre-conditions' -- one of the most outrageously unjust situations in a system full of them.

Reliable transit is absolutely fundamental, and without it, low income earners would not be able to work. Period.

Disagree -- everyone, low-income earners included, deserve to be able to get around under their own power -- that means they need safe, dignified, comfortable, and ideally pleasant places to walk, bike, etc. DC is making great strides in this regard, as are a few other towns, and that absolutely needs to continue. We're not going to build a BRT line that stops in front of everyone's door, and we're not going to provide dignified transit to everyone's doorstep either, so we need to allow people to get around under their own power, and allow them to hold onto their dignity at the same time.

by Peter Smith on May 29, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

Yeah, Peter - I never said door to door transit is what poor people need. ? Not sure where you picked up on that, or what your disagreement with my statement is. You are misinterpreting it I think, if I read your comment correctly.

by Jazzy on May 29, 2010 9:09 pm • linkreport

SDJ, I don't think that transit and supporting child care and health care are mutually exclusive. Buses and trains require less of a subsidy than do cars.
The more people who use transit, the more money we have for other things.

I agree with you that new buses should not be a priority now. Paying drivers and keeping all the buses that we already have should be.

by Helen Bushnell on May 29, 2010 10:50 pm • linkreport

@SE Resident/jcm: - jcm is exactly correct. When I moved to DC from Montgomery County my income tax burden went down.

by Brian White on May 30, 2010 8:35 am • linkreport

"How many truly blue collar areas are that close to a metro stop, aside from metro facilities themselves? "

Outside of DC? Lots :) Some in DC too. New Carrolton, Landover, Minnesota Ave, Largo, Addison Rd, Capitol Heights, Rhode Island Ave... don't know the other side of the city as well.

by Brian White on May 30, 2010 8:39 am • linkreport

Are we talking blue collar or low-income? A lot of blue collar jobs pay very well, and in fact it is the loss of those kinds of jobs that is hurting our economy.

by Helen Bushnell on May 30, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

Yeah, Peter - I never said door to door transit is what poor people need. ? Not sure where you picked up on that, or what your disagreement with my statement is. You are misinterpreting it I think, if I read your comment correctly.

my bad - my comment was confusing. let me try to clarify.

i disagree that 'Reliable transit is absolutely fundamental'. i might not say that it is totally unnecessary, but i would not call it 'fundamental' if by 'fundamental' we mean necessary, or deserving of more priority than things i believe actually do warrant the 'fundamental' label -- namely, being able to walk and bike places in safety, comfort, etc.

so, by extension, i disagree that transit is necessary for low income earners to be able to get to work. technically speaking, that statement by itself (without context) is correct right now/currently in that transit actually is necessary for low income folks to get to work, but that's not the way it has to be. bike lanes and other appropriate walk and bike infrastructure can/are/will continue to do wonders. how fast we are able to give people their dignity back (and let them keep more of their money) will depend in part on how much blogs like GGW advocate for putting bikes on major thoroughfares instead of buses. [Incidentally, Berkeley killed off part of a BRT route recently -- many in the progressive transit/transportation community are quite upset at us bikers/bloggers/advocates/residents/neighbors for having opposed BRT so intensely. Now, because the full-build BRT is not going to happen in Berkeley, that corridor will possibly get bike lanes - there's enough room, now. Just something to keep in mind the next time someone promises you a magic bus for nearly free that will solve all your city's transportation problems.]

The 'door-to-door' comment is just a general take against the idea that transit can or should take people door to door -- which is what you need in a society that has effectively outlawed bike travel. So we can continue down the road of the motorized dystopia that BRT and the new K Street Transitway promises, or we can allow people to ride bikes on even our major thoroughfares -- the choice is largely up to us.

by Peter Smith on May 30, 2010 10:54 pm • linkreport

In my experience, transit and walking and biking are complementary. For example, Paris has combined bike/bus lanes that work very well. One the other hand, I used to live in Nagoya, Japan, a city that lacks bus racks at many transit stops and that apparently fewer people use transit and ride their bikes than in other Japanese cities.

by Helen Bushnell on May 30, 2010 11:23 pm • linkreport

I was not aware that there is now a huge choice to be made between either buses or pedestrianism. Wow.

Why not have both?

And as far as bike lanes over buses, I would have to disagree. What about those over a certain age who no longer can or want to ride their bicycles? What about people without a bike?

Sorry, but this line of arguing is getting ridiculous, and exemplifies the quote above from someone about putting wishes over needs.

by Jazzy on May 31, 2010 7:27 am • linkreport

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