My, it’s been a long, long time.
Gee, ain’t it funny, how time slips away.
With apologies to the great Willie Nelson lyrics, your Notebook is happy to be back on the pages of the revived Current Newspapers. After an absence since December while the newspaper reset itself, we expect to appear occasionally in these pages, more episodic than our nearly 20-year run of weekly columns.
We hope you’ll look for us and support The Current as it serves our local Washington neighborhoods. The internet and growth of social media has disrupted the hometown media and its advertising base as much as it has the big media boys. But our city needs the local touch much more now than ever. So let’s get to it.
• Spring finally sprung. But the housing market in the District already is summer red hot. Individuals and families are moving in and moving up. Still, in this economic revival of the District, there are severe inequalities in affordability and income distribution dragging down participation by many. The mayor and D.C. Council search for ways to assure more moderate-and lower-income housing.
It’s not a problem unique to Washington, nor is it a new problem.
Back in April 1971, then Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington — 47 years ago — decried “the compelling need for moderate cost housing offering ownership opportunities in our city.” Mayor Washington was creating his Project Home program to encourage construction of affordable homes.
He wanted the real estate industry to build more homes in the $20,000 for lower-income families and $35,000 homes for the middle class. Yep. Read those numbers again.
“We are talking here of the loss to our community of a vital resource — the property owner who contributes significantly to the stability of his neighborhood and to the social and economic growth of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Our thanks to DC Water’s Vincent Morris, who gifted us an old book detailing official actions of the city from 1971-73. This was the period immediately before Home Rule and the elected mayor and council.
The record book includes work from the Commission on the Organization of the Government of the District of Columbia (also known as the Nelsen Commission). Its paperwork shows a city worried about “the absenteeism and dropout problems” in city schools, urging “new efforts to solve them.”
And Mayor Washington also was telling Congress the city was working hard to replace the Washington Senators, who had just left the District bereft of baseball.
“Baseball has been a part of Washington life for far, far too long to simply be forgotten,” the mayor wrote. “I am confident that we will have a baseball team in Washington in the not too distant future.” (Of course, baseball did not return to RFK until 2005, aside from a few exhibition games.)
Baseball, housing, jobs, efficient government, transportation. This old record book reminds us that no government anywhere solves all the problems. They just reappear in different iterations.
• Failing grades. Past or present, our public school system can’t take many more hits. While there is demonstrable progress in many academic areas — as well as new or rebuilt school facilities themselves — the onslaught of bad news regarding graduation rates, test scores and absenteeism have all undermined any image of progress.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, virtually unopposed for re-election, is politically lucky the school implosion did not fully manifest itself last year, in time for a candidate to marshal a campaign. The search for a viable new chancellor is important. But whoever it is, the school system must become more transparent about its budget, management and true academic progress.
And let’s skip all the aspirational talk about making a “world-class” system. As a District citizen, the Notebook would be happy if we initially could reach for average or above average. The aspirational, bureaucratic fog of words like “excellence” and “world-class” only obscure real work and real problems.
• Going nowhere fast. And don’t get us started on traffic in our city. (Too late.)
We would call it a rolling disaster but traffic would have to be “rolling.” It’s not. The morning and evening “rush” hours are quickly merging into daylong traffic headaches in much of the city’s core blocks downtown.
The Downtown DC Business Improvement District’s most recent annual report — “Fueling the Engine” — references all the ways in which the area is growing. But traffic woes are growing faster than the D.C. Department of Transportation or other city agencies can (or will) adjust.
“I’ve seen the whole movie,” said Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who since 1991 has helped lead the city’s revival and worries about congestion stifling business.
A 2017 study by the Transportation Department showed evening “rush” hour now extends from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. — four hours! Some streets face near gridlock everyday. There is a crucial lack of traffic control by civilian workers and ticket writers. The D.C. police long ago abandoned traffic enforcement as a key role. If you follow the Notebook’s Twitter account (@tomsherwood), you know we liken traffic to a Wild West situation where drivers do whatever the hell they want and risk little chance of being caught or fined.
• Metrorail good news. We want to end on a more positive note. After years of finger-pointing and complaining to and about each other, the jurisdictions of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia finally are working out minimum funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Jack Evans, who also chairs the Metro board of directors, calls the funding agreements historic.
It isn’t coming about naturally from just goodwill. Evans led the public charge to demand — and sometimes ridicule — Maryland and Virginia to step up to the plate. Then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan were incensed, calling on Evans to resign. But the public shaming — and the desperate need for funding — won out. As much as the District benefits from Metrorail and bus service, so do the adjoining states. Now, as D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt recently said, it’s up to Metro to use the money wisely to draw commuters who have abandoned the system or have sharply cut back their use of it (the Notebook included).