D.C. Lags in Infrastructure Funding for a Capital City

Posted December 10, 2008 at 6:56pm

Congress needs to invest at least $1 billion a year in the District if it wants to build “the best capital city in the world,” according to a report being released today.

Spearheaded by the nonprofit DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the report details the city’s long-standing obstacles, including tax limitations that prevent Washington, D.C., from collecting more than $1 billion annually.

Appleseed — along with D.C. officials — hope the report will convince Members that the city is unable to pay for adequate infrastructure and services. Their solution: Congress has to pony up, just like the governments of other Western nations.

The United States “treats its capital pretty poorly” compared with other countries, said Walter Smith, Appleseed’s executive director. But, he added, now is the time to reverse that trend.

“The word that is on everyone’s lips today is ‘infrastructure,’” he said. “If the federal government is about to invest billions and billions of dollars in infrastructure, one of the places they ought to be doing that is the nation’s capital.”

On Thursday, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and other city officials will endorse the report at a press conference.

Their push for more federal money comes as Norton is working to make the city more autonomous, starting with a bill that would grant D.C. a voting Representative in the House.

The D.C. Voting Rights Act passed the House in 2007, only to stall in the Senate after coming up three votes short of the 60 needed to make it filibuster-proof.

Norton and voting-rights activists have high hopes for the 111th Congress, however; Democrats will hold 58 or 59 Senate seats, making the bill’s passage much more likely.

Norton also continues to push for budget and legislative autonomy for the District with bills that would remove some Congressional oversight.

That mission may seem at odds with asking Congress for significant infrastructure funding, but Smith said the two go hand-in-hand.

“I think they will work together in creating a city we all want,” he said. “Whatever happens to the city with regard to some other efforts — budget autonomy, voting rights and all the rest — the District of Columbia is always going to need to be and want to be a partner with the federal government.”

In the 60-page Appleseed report, several experts weigh in on the roots of D.C.’s fiscal problem, the capital improvements needed and the federal funds received by other world capitals.

In one chapter, Alice Rivlin, the director of greater Washington research at the Brookings Institution, points out that D.C. has some of the responsibilities of a state but can’t tax like one.

For example, D.C. provides services to everyone who works in the city but is prohibited from taxing two-thirds of them because they aren’t residents. Federal buildings also don’t pay property taxes — a loss of about $540 million.

To bring the city’s infrastructure to “acceptable levels,” the District needs $16 billion to $31 billion over 20 years, Rivlin writes, citing a 2005 Center for Washington Area Studies report.

“This small central city simply cannot carry that burden alone given its truncated tax powers, narrow tax base, and heavy state and local responsibilities,” she writes.

The report also details how D.C. has improved since 1995, when the city carried a deficit of more than $700 million. The crisis led Congress to pass the Revitalization Act, which addressed some of the District’s problems and helped it achieve its current surplus of more than $100 million.

At the time, Smith said, Congress acknowledged that the act was just a first step.

More than a decade later, he says it’s time to address the issue again.

“I think Congress really promised to do this, to revisit this issue once the District did its part,” he said. “If they’re going to be true to their word of ‘Let’s look at this 10 years later and see,’ now is the time.”