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Government


The plastics industry says trash is not a problem in the Anacostia River. DC councilmembers disagree.

The DC Council could vote to ban foam food containers on Monday. The plastics industry is hoping otherwise.


Foam packaging along the Potomac River. Photo by Cheryl Williams, Surfrider Foundation

The plastics lobby descended on the Wilson building this week to make a last-ditch push to block a proposed polystyrene ban, up for a final vote on Monday. The bill passed the council unanimously on June 24.

Led by Dart Container and the American Chemistry Council, the industry lobbyists want to delay the ban until more study is done on trash in the Anacostia River, even though research has been ongoing for more than five years.

The Anacostia Watershed Society has been tracking material caught in Nash Run, near the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, since 2009. By volume, foam is typically about a quarter of the floatable trash they capture.


Trash, by volume, collected from the Nash Run Trash Trap. Image from the Anacostia Watershed Society.

The proposed ban is part of Mayor Vincent Gray's Sustainable DC plan, and is included along with ten other measures in the Sustainable DC Omnibus Act of 2013. The ban would cover expanded polystyrene foam food containers like cups, clamshells, and plates that you might get at fast food or carryout restaurants.

While it doesn't take effect until 2016, the District is already preparing to support businesses with a list of vendors of alternative materials, and coordinating cooperative buying arrangements to help lower costs. Many small businesses already use compostable or recyclable packaging, knowing that their customers prefer sustainable alternatives.

Polystyrene foam bans are already in place in more than 100 cities around the country, in response to research on plastic pollution in the oceans and persistent litter in neighborhoods. Even Congress tried to get rid of polystyrene in its cafeterias under former Speaker (now Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi's watch. DC would be the first in the region to pass such a ban, though Baltimore has been debating one for several years.

As plastics go, polystyrene is one of the worst. Styrene itself is a possible carcinogen, with a risk of transfer particularly via hot foods. Once in the water, polystyrene behaves like all other petrochemicals and absorbs fertilizers and pesticides, but at ten times the rate of other types of plastic. If a fish eats those tiny piecesor a volunteer picks it up at a river cleanupit can be exposed to toxic chemicals.

The bill is on the agenda for Monday's legislative meeting. For more information, and to contact your councilmember, see banthefoam.org.

Roads


Will DC’s streetcar weary council embrace the ambitious moveDC plan?

In this second installment of Streetsblog's interview with DDOT officials about moveDC, the conversation steered to the practicality of congestion pricing, implementation of the plan, and the elephant in the room: Whether a DC Council that just dramatically cut streetcar funding has the appetite to fund progressive transportation.


Road congestion if moveDC is implemented (left), and if not (right). Image from DDOT.

MoveDC calls for congestion pricing, 69 miles of high-capacity transit in addition to the 22 miles of streetcar already planned, a new downtown Metro loop, 72 miles of protected bike lanes, 136 miles of painted bike lanes, and 135 miles of off-street trails, all over the next 25 years.

In yesterday's interview installment, I talked to Matt Brown, DDOT's new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT's Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA, about the prospects for the most dramatic changes envisioned in the plan, the pitfalls of a focus on Complete Streets, and the reality that cars will not win every trade-off anymore.

Here we pick up where we left off.

In the plan, there are two side-by-side maps (above) of future road congestion. One with the changes laid out in the plan, and one without. They're very similar. Not identical, but very similar.

SZ: They're not identical. But you have to remember, this removes a lot of vehicular capacity in exchange for some other things. So in order to create the space to provide more options, there was a need to manage the person-carrying capacity of the roadway system. And there were two principles that went along with that.

One is that there's always a way to not pay the charge. The way we modeled it, it's roughly equivalent to a round trip Metro fare.

I thought that was interesting, to basically say you're not going to pay any more to drive than to take the Metro.

SZ: And carpools might be free. But everybody's paying [if they drive alone]. District residents have to pay. And as we look at the whole system, we're accommodating the same number of car trips in a day in 2040 as we are today, even as the District grows by 170,000 residents and a couple hundred thousand jobs.

CH: And we could have made these colors [on the map] pretty much whatever we wanted to. If we add more roads that would be tolled, like Massachusetts Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, we could get different colors in here. But it didn't seem like we needed that to keep the network moving. This seemed to be a sweet spot in terms of the size of the cordon charge.

SZ: In the region, we're starting to get experience with tolls. People ride the ICC, they take 495. They start to see what that means.


The proposed downtown congestion charge zone. Image from DDOT.

I'm curious about the technical aspect of it, if you have that worked out.

SZ: [Shakes head]

There are so many access points. A lot of it's bridges, almost half…

SZ: The Virginia side is.

…But not if someone's coming in on 10th Street. Is it all electronic license plate monitors?

SZ: We don't know. We tried to [include congestion pricing] to model the future, but we haven't tried to figure out all the details yet. I think it's more like a London system than a bridge entry. They have closed-circuit TVs to read every license plate.

But we also continue to look at managing the highway facilities and think about how that would be integrated. So it's not all or nothing.

How much were the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Office of Planning involved in this process?

SZ: We had an agency advisory committee. This doesn't mean endorsement by them, but they were engaged in the process. The Office of Planning more than anybody. District agencies, COG, VDOT and MDOT were on that advisory committee. And Colleen presented the plan to the full Transportation Planning Board in March, as we were still writing it. And this generated some comments.

I hear you chuckle as you say "some comments."

SZ: There were some concerns, and parts they were saying, "I don't think that's going to happen."

What were the parts they were most skeptical about or troubled by?

SZ: I think the congestion charge.

CH: The biggest thing about it is going back to "DC can't tax people driving into the city."

A commuter tax.

CH: Exactly. But it's really not that. The DC residents would pay the same.

MB: It's the same with freeway managed lanes.

You could say the same for parking.

SZ: I think people have.

Oh great. People really compare it to an income tax on commuters?

SZ: That's sort of the knee-jerk response anytime we discuss pricing.

But those are apples and oranges.

CH: And then where is that money going? If it's going toward Metro, which is a regional system...

SZ: From our perspective, providing a way to not pay the chargewalking, biking, taking Metro, taking transit, maybe carpoolingthere are many ways to not pay the charge. Commuter, non-commuter, this is about managing the transportation system.

So everybody was consulted with, even if they didn't necessarily sign on.

SZ: It's not a regional plan. It's a plan for the District. And we looked at not only the comments that other jurisdictions had about our transportation system, but also ways that our transportation system could better connect to things that they are trying to do.

So we looked a lot at Montgomery County's BRT plans and how demand from other parts of the region to connect would feed into the District's transportation system. And a lot of our high-capacity transit corridors try to connect to Montgomery and Prince George's County, to connect with where they've talked about doing higher-capacity. A lot of our trail system and bridge connections try to connect with what Virginia's doing. So I think there's a lot of regional coordination and collaboration around ways to connect the system.

I want to ask about federal land. DC is such a special case. Is it a burden to have to deal with Congress, or to have to deal with federal roadways you can't just redesign? Does that come up a lot?

SZ: It does. It comes up in a lot of different ways, from where we're allowed to spend our resources to, you know, you can sneeze and hit a national park around here.

Yeah, every little corner pocket park is a national park in DC.

SZ: Right, so we're accustomed to the interagency collaboration. We didn't limit ourselves to just District-controlled streets in this, and we did look at some of those links that are controlled by National Park Service or Architect of the Capitol. There aren't that many, especially once you get outside of the historic city.

MB: But there's also CSX, there's Amtrak, there's WMATA. There's any number of partners we have to work with.

But I also think any number of cities across the country would want the direct relationship that DDOT has with [the] Federal Highway [Administration]. We meet with Federal Highway at least every two weeks. We work with them on our projects. We receive funds directly from them, not through a state. Sure, we have our issues, especially with the federal lands. But I think there's tremendous opportunity here.

So it seemed kind of rough that this came out a week after the really bad news about the streetcar, with this reproach from Council Chair Phil Mendelson and the council saying this was mismanaged.

MB: Let me just say: Absolutely not.

What does "absolutely not" mean?

MB: It wasn't timed. Our desire was to get this out as quickly as we can, to do it before people are gone for the summer, to finalize the plan and to document all the work that has gone into this and all those sessions we had with the community. There was no ulterior motive here.

Oh, I'm saying quite the opposite. Right after the council says, "We're not really into giving a whole lot more money into DDOT's big multi-modal plans," you come out with The Big Multi-Modal Plan. That seems to set up an antagonistic relationship with the council. How are you approaching that?

SZ: I don't think it's antagonistic.

MB: I think it's important that we communicate what our vision is. We need to be clear about where we are going.

But how will you approach a council that has just gone on record saying, "We're not interested in giving DDOT more money for grand multi-modal plans"?

MB: Well, for a specific aspect of the 22-mile streetcar system.

Which is part of this as well, plus a million other things.

MB: But if you listen to Mendelson on his face, he's not stopping the streetcar program. He's criticized us for our implementation. But like I said, I think we have to be clear about our vision and we have to talk about things like managed lanes and congestion pricing and dedicated funding streams. We have to have that conversation.

SZ: The funding mechanism they removed was the same funding mechanism they had approved the year before. So that, to me, is more about the tensions in a growing city and the way it was paired with tax cuts made it a difficult either/or. But this [plan] still talks about how that priority streetcar network fits within a larger transportation system and what it's intended to do.

And you feel like the council is still open to having that conversation?

SZ: We have a hearing [this week] on a bill that tries to create an authority to make the streetcar happen faster, at the same time as they just took away funding for it. So I don't pretend to understand exactly what's going through their minds as they do all this.

And then in terms of funding, you said you're open to this being a menu of options, and that they might not order the whole menu. You say you have $22 billion identified for it.

SZ: That'll have to change now.

But even if you got all the funding you project might possibly come in, you still don't quite make it. So is there a sense of where that prioritization would happen? Would that happen within DDOT? Would that happen with the council saying, "We're going to fund this part but not this part?" Is it just obvious, that the downtown metro loop is going to be super-expensive, cordon pricing is going to be super-expensive, so that's going to be at the end of the list?

MB: I think you've hit on one of our challenges, and the next step. Looking at all the recommendations, figuring out what is short term, easy to implement. The more expensive items are obviously ones that require a heavier lift and more funding.

We were talking about taking the plan and turning it into an action plan. I think that's important to operationalize the elements of the plan.

Former DDOT Director Gabe Klein had these action agendas. Seems like he liked to work from that, take something like this as the vision and then...

SZ: But we didn't have this [long-range plan]. We haven't done this since 1997, and then we did it again in 2004 and it got rolled in to the comprehensive plan. And this isn't a static plan where we're going to put it on the shelf and then in 2030 we say, "This is still the plan and we're still going to do it." It's something that gets updated every five or six years.

MB: And that's not unlike the action agenda that was put together for Sustainable DC.

Yes, so how does this dovetail with that?

SZ: Pretty well actually!

Is that something you looked at to ask, "Is this meeting those carbon goals?"

SZ: Yes, and that whole process was very helpful for us. It was just as we were starting to do this that the Sustainable DC plan came out and said, "Here are our transportation goals for sustainability." And we could say, "OK, let's go with that. How do we come in and achieve that?"

We see it as providing an overarching sustainability [framework]. In many ways it's the perfect complement to this.

We've talked to a couple of other cities that are starting major planning efforts that heard about this in one way or another. Portland and Seattle are both starting major transportation plans.

And wanting to go in this sort of direction?

SZ: Well they heard about what we were doing and they were curious about it. And we gave them some advice about what to do and what not to do.

What do you not do?

SZ: I don't know. It was largely a very successful process. I don't know, what do you not do?

[Silence]

CH: That's a good question.

Budget


Mendelson plans to slash streetcar funding, pay for tax cuts

In his proposal for the DC budget, council chairman Phil Mendelson will propose lowering the streetcar's capital funding from what Mayor Gray has proposed. Mendelson will fund other streetcar-related projects like a new bridge near Union Station, while much of the decrease will fund a package of tax cuts.


Photo by Rena Tom on Flickr.

In a phone conversation, Mendelson said the change will devote about $400 million for the streetcar over five years. The mayor's proposal dedicates about $800 million over five years, rising to $3 billion over ten years.

Mayor Gray's budget director, Eric Goulet, says this is not nearly enough to build the streetcar system as planned, and the change would effectively halt the streetcar program. Mendelson disagrees, and says that he'd like to see a clearer plan from DDOT about how it will spend the money before approving it.

Gray had proposed a system where as DC's revenue increases, 25% of that increase beyond the projected level for 2015 would go into the streetcar. This would ensure the streetcar has an ongoing pool of money, and since the streetcar will supposedly generate economic growth, it can capture some of that benefit.

Mendelson's proposal would change the formula so that it's only 25% of the gain in any specific year. In other words, if revenue rises from 2015 to 2018, Gray's proposal would dedicate a quarter of the difference from 2015 to 2018 to the streetcar, while the Mendelson proposal would instead use a quarter of the difference just from 2017 to 2018.

Councilmember David Grosso, who agrees with Mendelson's plan, emphasized that he does not want to see the streetcar program wither, but he also doesn't think it needs the quantities of money that Gray wants to dedicate. He said there is a $100 million surplus in the streetcar account; therefore, there isn't a need for more. "It's been proven that they aren't spending the money," he said. "You should budget according to what you can actually accomplish and get it done right."

The mayor has disputed the $100 million number as well. That number came from calculations by staff for Mary Cheh, who chairs the transportation committee. But in a letter to the council yesterday, Mayor Gray called this an "incorrect financial analysis"; Gray's budget staff have described it in more colorful terms.

"It's just not sustainable," said Mendelson. Council budget director Jennifer Budoff explained that while the city's revenue increases by about $200 million a year (of which $50 million would go to streetcar under Mayor Gray's plan) the city's budget also increases, often by more than $200 million a year, due to rising costs. Therefore, she said, the streetcar allocation would eat into the base budget after about five years.

Some of the money will go to pay for a new Hopscotch Bridge, the bridge over the railroad tracks north of Union Station which the streetcar will use. That bridge has to be replaced before the line can extend to downtown and Georgetown, and needs about $200 million.

The cuts will also fund a series of tax breaks which will $165 million a year. These are some of the proposals from the Tax Revision Commission which former mayor Tony Williams chaired. Mendelson's budget proposal leaves out a few proposals from that commission, such as a "local services fee" that would charge all DC employers a flat rate per employee (seemingly a backdoor way of getting some revenue from companies that employ out-of-state workers who don't pay any income taxes) and an increase in the sales tax.

The tax breaks will phase in over 5 years. They include a new middle tax bracket for people making $40-60,000 of 7%, then dropping to 6.5%; making single people eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit; a higher standard deduction; a cut to 8.75% for people making $350,000-$1 million (but not those making more); a cut in the business franchise tax; and a higher estate tax exemption that would rise from the current $1 million up to $2 million and later to the federal level of $5.25 million.

The sales tax would still broaden to more businesses, like health clubs and yoga studios, a proposal that these businesses fought heavily in recent years.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which supports a more progressive tax code, supports most of these changes and notes that cuts for low and middle income families, which will cost $123 million, make up about three-quarters of the $165 million tax cut package.

The business tax cut costs $40 million a year, and the estate tax cut will make DC lose out on about $14 million a year from deceased residents.

Cheh said her staff have not been able to look at the proposal, which won't be released to councilmembers until 5 pm today; she only has spoken to Mendelson verbally about the plans thus far and has not formulated a position on the proposal. She emphasized that, if the cuts go through, she will work to ensure the streetcar gets enough money to continue building, and recognizes that a project like this can build up momentum which could be lost if there are too many budget hurdles.

I will update this story as it develops.

Development


Worried about DC gentrification? A new bill would speed it up and lose affordable housing

As housing prices rise, the few affordable units in booming neighborhoods become even more important. But a new bill in the DC Council would cut the period of time when such a unit has to remain affordable, removing affordable housing in some of DC's fastest-changing neighborhoods.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Right now, when the city subsidizes a new housing unit for sale, that unit has to remain affordable for at least 15 years. If an owner wants to sell the unit during that time period, he or she must sell it at a price that another similarly low-income buyer can afford. After 15 years, the owner can sell it for any price.

But a bill by Councilmember Anita Bonds would cut that affordability period to five years in neighborhoods classified as "distressed," where the poverty rate is 20% or more. That includes neighborhoods like Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Bloomingdaleareas that were affordable 15 to 20 years ago but have quickly become out of reach for low-income households without subsidies.

The 15 year limit helps maintain a stock of low-cost units for current (and future) low-income home buyers, and helps keep affordable housing in neighborhoods whose prices might rapidly rise.

If the bill passes, within five years much of the affordable housing being bought now in these neighborhoods could be lost. The existing affordable units cost less to build than they would today, meaning it's very unlikely the city could replace the lost units without major additional public money.

There might be specific DC neighborhoods where the housing market is so slow that residents need incentives to buy even affordable units there, but that's not the case in these areas. A good bill would carefully weigh the market conditions and how much affordable housing would be lost. This bill doesn't do that.

The proposed law would also give the nonprofit developer who originally built the unit the first right to buy the unit back, but after 5 years it would be at market rate. In any of these rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, that means the nonprofit would spend much more money to get the unit than it earned by building it. It would need an extra subsidy (on top of the original subsidy) to make the unit affordable to the next low-income buyer.

In these still-tough budget times, what jurisdiction can afford to pour brand new subsidy into the same units every five years?

Other cities and counties don't do this

The proposed change is out of step with affordability best practices across the country, and also with jurisdictions in our own backyard. It positions DC, which has in the past been a leader both locally and nationally in affordable housing policy and funding, to have some of the most lax affordability restrictions in the region when it comes to homeownership.

Arlington imposes a 30-year affordability restriction on units developed with its Affordable Housing Investment Fund. Homeowners using the mortgage assistance program (MIPAP) have to share the proceeds of a sale to help the next low-income buyer afford the property.

Montgomery County, which notably started out with 5-year restrictions back in the 1970s, has increased its affordability period to 30 years on many of the properties in the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program. According to a National Housing Institute report, the county had lost two-thirds of the affordable units it had created by the time it enacted the 30-year requirement.

The proposed DC change also breaks rank with other progressive jurisdictions around the country like San Francisco and Seattle (King County) that have typically been DC's housing peers.

What about truly distressed neighborhoods?

There may be places where long-term restrictions truly inhibit homeownership. Potential residents might refuse to buy a unit in such a neighborhood if they can't sell it for a substantial profit in a short period of time. But to find them should require a much more detailed approach than looking at the poverty rate.

Plus, poverty data can be as much as five years old by the time we get it. A gentrifying neighborhood could take more than a decade to stop being defined as "distressed." Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, and Bloomingdale above all began transitioning more than ten years ago. A better definition of distressed could look at current data about home values, sales price, and number of transactions.

Why have a restriction on resale at all?

Those pushing for this change argue that since a market-rate homebuyer can turn around and sell his or her house for more money when the market rises, so should anyone who purchases a subsidized unit.

If public subsidies were unlimited and the government could fund enough affordable housing for everyone, or there were enough naturally-occurring affordable housing to meet people's needs at any income level, then there wouldn't be a problem.

But in the real world where we have limited resources, it seems to make sense to say that if someone shares with you, you should share with the next person. In affordable homeownership terms, we call this concept "equity sharing."

Equity sharing models don't say that subsidized buyers walk away with no gain at all, but they don't get to walk away with everything either. Data and research from restricted homeownership models tell us that homeowners in these units tend to sell their homes at the same rate as other homeowners, within 5 to 7 years, and that about two-thirds of them are able to build enough wealth in the process to buy their next homes at market price with no deed restrictions. Brett Theodos explained this in more detail in a previous post.

A Center for Housing Policy report about affordable homeownership strategies says that well-designed programs can both protect limited public resources while also giving buyers the benefits of homeownership. Through them, the city can both help low-income buyers build wealth and keep the unit affordable for the foreseeable future.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and City First Homes, an affordable housing nonprofit, have weighed in with a full set of recommendations to make this proposed bill less harmful. Meanwhle, the DC Affordable Housing Alliance has drafted a sign-on letter to encourage the council to support these changes; email me to sign on as an individual or an organization.

Besides Bonds, the bill's author, cosponsors include Muriel Bowser (ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5), and Marion Barry (ward 8). Councilmembers will hear from the public about this bill on May 29th at 10:00 am. Contact Judah Gluckman to sign up to speak or to submit written comments.

Politics


Wells will not run for DC Council at-large seat; Elissa Silverman declares her candidacy

DC Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) will put to rest a long period of speculation today and announce he will not run for an at-large seat on the DC Council, GGW has learned. In addition, Elissa Silverman is filing papers this afternoon to run for the seat.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Silverman previously ran in the 2013 special election which was won by Anita Bonds. Silverman placed second in a field which split votes among multiple self-described "progressive" challengers to Bonds, who had been appointed as interim councilmember when Phil Mendelson moved up to chairman.

Wells ran for mayor in the April 1 primary. While he was one of four councilmembers running for mayor, he was the only one up for reelection in the same year, and thus had to give up his seat to seek higher office. Meanwhile, Independent David Catania will also not seek reelection in November to run for mayor against Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser. Wells had considered running for Catania's seat to remain on the council.

Wells confirmed via phone that he has decided not to run. In a statement, he said,

The Council needs an infusion of fresh leadership, and I need to apply my Council experience to new challenges. While it takes time for newly elected council members to learn the ropes, once they do, they bring fresh energy and perspective that more than compensates for time spent on the learning curve. They are eager to get to work on fulfilling their promises, testing new ideas, and addressing the very issues that inspired them to run for officeand won them the votes of their constituents.

I am proud of what I have accomplished during my two terms as the Ward 6 Councilmember. My service has brought action, advocacy, and innovation to our city. I passed a bag fee that has dramatically reduced pollution and funded the cleanup of the Anacostia River; championed and secured funding for expanded Circulator bus lines and a streetcar system that will connect underserved DC neighborhoods to jobs and city amenities; advanced social justice reforms including the decriminalization of marijuana possession and a minimum wage increase; and worked with Ward 6 residents to make our elementary schools the envy of our city.

Wells said he is not publicly endorsing anyone at this time. However, the timing of his announcement on the same day as Silverman's move certainly raises questions about whether the timing is more than coincidental.

Mindful of the vote-splitting from past elections and given that Wells and Silverman share many ideological views (and likely voter bases), it is likely that Silverman did not want to file if Wells were running, and also likely that she discussed the possibility with Wells before making a decision.

Many other people have voiced some level of interest in running for the seat, including current Ward 7 member Yvette Alexander. Eugene Puryear won a contested primary for the Statehood Green nomination for the seat.

This post has been updated with additional information.

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