Today at DCist, I have a post up discussing some of the issues surrounding a recent trend toward dispersion of planning authority to local governments. The piece focuses on a handful of smart growth policies, but the trend is clear in a number of different areas. Virginia and Maryland have taken to planning their own Metro expansions, while Arlington is moving forward on its street car by itself (and while VRE languishes). The District, Virginia, Maryland, and the federal government continue to tussle over Metro funding sources. Development is the same story. Arlington has done a good job encouraging density (and would love to go taller, if the FAA didn’t protest), but Vincent Orange will do anything he can to lure a low, low density strip mall to the center of DC. Tyson’s Corner would like to be a new, denseÂ downtown-ish neighborhood, but Columbia Heights NIMBYs fight new apartment buildings in the center of the city (complaining about traffic, of all things). And, as I wrote today, exurban counties are beginning to rebel against runaway growth, while state and federal government bodies do their best to push employment outward.
The result is sprawl that shows no signs of abating, high housing costs, commute times that lead the nation and grow longer by the year, growing pressure on public services (including mass transit), and a quality of life that will continue to sink, especially outside the immediate core of the city, as time goes on.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the solution is the creation of a Washington Regional Authority, with powers to zone for density, handle transportation planning, and levy regional taxes, and with an arbitration mechanism to help settle disagreements within the region on issues pertaining to green space, housing policy, school policy, and crime policy. I see included jurisdictions having proportional representation on a legislative board that would also include a rep from Virginia, Maryland, the District, and the federal government.
The difficulty in getting something like this put together is in the fact that no area would want to give up too much of its authority over its own space, but as a number of local jurisdictions have shown a willingness to sacrifice to improve their quality of life (by raising their own taxes, for instance), this may not end up being an insurmountable obstacle.Â It’s possible that local leaders would go for the plan, simply because they would no longer have primary responsibility for a lot of difficult issues for which they get a great deal of grief. Republicans in Virginia might love the plan, since urban congestion issues probably have a lot to do with the erosion of support for the party in Northern Virginia.
Most importantly, however, I think the District should get behind this. In fact, I think that work toward such an arrangement should be a more important goal for the city than achieving voting rights. Yes, as Americans, it would definitely be nice to have our say in the Congress, but in terms of impacting our quality of life in a positive way and increasing our influence as voters both within and beyond the District lines, I think establishing ourself as the center of a regional authority with real power is a much sounder goal. A regional plan that favors smart growth and quality transportation systems will naturally favor the District, which remains the most dense area of regional employment and which, as the center of the urban area, would be the focus of most transport links. Regional taxation would allow the District access to the suburban hinterland it supports.
And such a plan would help halt sprawl while simultaneously improving access to the metro area for lower income residents. Better transport and more housing will help people up and down the income scale live and work in DC. If we don’t want to read horrible stories about District firemen commuting in from Charles Town, then this is the only way to go. Finally, as I’ve also written before, a functioning regional authority very well might pave the way toward the creation of a new state, incorporating parts of Virginia, Maryland, and the District.
What do you guys think?