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May 1, 2013

Streetcar Progress

Dear Riders:

The Washington Post published an un-bylined article on Monday, "District Prepares H Street/Benning Road for Arrival of Streetcar Service,", which is notable primarily for the universal skepticism in the readers’ comments on it. "Good article. In a year or two from now you can reprint this in its entirety and see if we believe it then," to which a second comment is, "I thought this was a reprint from last year. No?," and a third comment is, "The 356th Post story trying to convince people that H Street is any different than it was twenty years ago." A fourth commentator says, "Isn’t it a bit unusual that the streetcars have been in storage since 2009?," and a fifth that, "Lets see, no electrical infrastructure built, no car barn built at the end of the line to service them. Yep, I am just ‘sure’ all that can happen in the next seven months. Assuming for a second it were to actually happen, this boondoggle would still be millions over budget and almost four years behind schedule." Perhaps the topper is the comment, "The DC Street Car project was the ignominious recipient of the ‘most mismanaged government project’ of 2011 label by the Economist magazine. Something for us to be proud of, I guess."


Jonetta Rose Barras, "Legal Representative of the People?,", discusses the legal duties and authority of the DC Attorney General, which is soon to be an elected, independent office. "During Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration, some legislators accused [the] then-AG [Peter Nickles] of acting as if he were the executive’s general counsel — not the attorney for the entire city, including its citizens. Nathan apparently suffers a similar affliction." Barras recounts Nathan’s refusal to provide a legal opinion to a private citizen. "‘Our office does not render legal opinions to private citizens,’ Nathan responded, suggesting his office was prohibited from providing such a service. Despite multiple requests from me, Nathan never cited any specific District law, rule, or regulation that imposed such a prohibition. ‘There are, as you know, tens of thousands of private lawyers in the District who can and do provide legal opinions to private citizens,’ he wrote, attaching a summary description of OAG services from the 2014 budget book. Interestingly, that book noted the AG’s Public Interest Division is responsible, among other things, for providing ‘enforcement, protection, representation, and advisory services to the District government and residents so that they can enjoy reduced risk of harm [and] protection of rights.’" Gotcha.


The city council, having solved all of the major problems in the city, is now setting itself up as the city’s naming authority, to determine what Washington businesses and institutions should be named and whether they should be allowed to keep their names. Councilmember David Grosso is offended by the name of the Washington Redskins, and has introduced a resolution (which he claims is supported by the majority of councilmembers) demanding that they change their name to the Washington Redtails. Who knows what business Grosso will target next. Thank goodness Blackie’s House of Beef has already closed, and escaped his wrath. Perhaps Target will be the next target, since the word itself suggests shooting. That association with shooting prompted the Washington Bullets basketball team to change its name to the Washington Wizards, but Grosso will undoubtedly want the Wizards to change their name again, since members of the Wiccan religion could claim that "Wizards" offends them. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III sent a twitter message today saying, "In a land of freedom we are held hostage by the tyranny of political correctness," which should shame councilmembers, if they were capable of shame. But those who are determined to extend their control over every aspect of our lives cannot be shamed.

Gary Imhoff


School Reform Catanese Style
Dorothy Brizill,

When Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced in January that, for the first time since 2006, there would be a separate and distinct Education Committee, as opposed to having education issues handled by the council’s Committee of the Whole, and that he was naming David Catania to serve as chair, serious questions were raised. While many acknowledge that Catania is a bright, hard-working member of the council, he also has serious shortcomings that could have a dramatic impact on his tenure as chair of the Education Committee, including a lack of in-depth knowledge of public education in the District of Columbia. In recent years, for example, Catania’s only interest in the education field had been as a blind, die-hard supporter of the education policies and management initiatives put forward by Mayor Fenty and School Superintendent Michelle Rhee. Moreover, within the Wilson Building and the community, concerns were raised about how Catania would chair the Education Committee, given the manner in which he previously chaired the council’s Health Committee and oversaw the District agencies under its purview since 2005 with a know-it-all attitude and an iron fist.

Now, in his first major initiative in education, we have a very clear idea of Catania’s plan and chairmanship of the council’s Education Committee. As Emma Brown first reported in an April 17 article in the Washington Post,, Catania, at a cost of $300,000, has hired the international law firm of Hogan Lovells, LLP, to prepare a "legal review of school reform in the District of Columbia," as well as to "research school policies that have succeeded around the country, help determine what might work in the District, and translate that into legislative language." Catania is considering a run for elective office in 2114, (either reelection to his at-large council seat, a run for mayor, or a run to be the District’s first elected Attorney General), and there is heightened concern regarding the role and influence of corporate funds in politics and our local elections. But he determined that he would solicit funds from the private sector to pay Hogan Lovells’ bill.

The project’s chronology raises other concerns. It appears that shortly after being selected as chairman of the Education Committee in January, Catania was in communication with a private philanthropist who "offered to retain counsel at private expense to prepare a legislative proposal for use" by Catania and the committee. On February 6, Catania, acting in secret, and without the knowledge or consent of any of his committee members or Council Chairman Mendelson, wrote to the DC Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) asking for an advisory opinion on how to proceed. On February 13, BEGA issued an advisory opinion (Advisory Opinion 11-13, with recommendations on how the private donations should be handled. On March 21, Catania, in his position as committee chairman, signed a formal letter of engagement with Hogan Lovells. It was only then, after the agreement was finalized, that Catania informed the other members of the Education Committee of his plans and actions; he never informed Mayor Gray, even though under 2007 legislation the mayor has control over public schools) or Council Chairman Mendelson. In recent years, the council has frequently turned to law firms and experts in the private sector to assist it with investigations and research into complicated public policy issues. In every instance, however, the selection of the law firm and/or consultant was preceded by a formal discussion and the decision to engage it was voted on by the committee or the entire council. Moreover, in past instances, the services were either provided pro bono or by nominal payments of public funds made by the council itself.

Finally, we now know that Emmanuel Friedman was the private philanthropist who approached Catania, and that he has already made a donation of $100,000. Friedman was the cofounder of the Friedman Billings Ramsey Group (FBR), an investment banking and brokerage firm based on Rosslyn, Virginia. He retired from the FBR several years ago, following an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the firm’s stock trading, and personally paid $1.25 million in fines to the SEC and the National Association of Securities Dealers, without making any admissions of guilt. FBR also paid more than $7.7 million to the SEC and NASD to resolve charges of improper trading in shares of Compudyne Corporation. The Catania project at Hogan Lovells will be headed by Maree Sneed, a partner at the law firm and a former principal in Montgomery County, who is on the board of advisors of the Broad Foundation and the board of directors of Teach for America, both of which are closely tied to former School Superintendent Michelle Rhee.


Parking Minimums
Leila Afzal,

Harriet Tregoning’s view of zoning, especially as it relates to parking requirements in a city, is decades out of date. Portland, Oregon, which pioneered the reduction of parking in the city to encourage alternative modes of transportation, has determined the concept has failed, or the very least needs major tweaking. Earlier this month, the Portland city council implemented new rules imposing parking minimums on developers in response to concerns from neighborhood residents who said new, large apartment buildings with no parking were causing congestion on side streets. The neighbors testified at a council hearing that tenants were clogging side streets with their cars. And a city-backed study confirmed that few residents of no-parking buildings were car-free. Ms. Tregoning should learn from the experience of cities like Portland, listen to the residents of DC who have to live with her zoning rewrite, and begin the zoning review process from scratch.


War on Facts
Paul Basken,

It’s sad to see this message board turn so clearly into a local listserv version of Fox — so many angry misinformed assertions masquerading as fact, so many appeals to social and economic common sense that don’t bother to consider any of the real-world social and economic tradeoffs. Where, for instance, does one get the idea that Metro is "at capacity," or that such a fact could somehow be an argument for encouraging even more use of passenger cars? There are some stations at some hours that could be defined that way, but that’s not an overall accurate description of the system (, and to the degree that it’s even partially true, it’s a reflection of the overwhelming majority of transportation funding already going to car-based options (See Figure 9 at

And how does evening the balance between bike options and car options mean policymakers are failing to plan for the needs of people of all ages and conditions? Isn’t that what balancing the options in fact means?

Each edition of this listserv seems to outdo the previous one for the scale of hyperventilating. Just stand somewhere in the city, anywhere, and count the number of bicyclists you see ride by. Then count the number of cars. Where does anyone seriously find the number of bicyclists come anywhere close to the number of cars? Where does anyone see bike lanes and bike routes outnumbering roads designed primarily for cars? Where? And what is really causing the congestion plaguing our roads — is it too many bikes or too many cars?

This listserv, like other places, is becoming a study in the willful failure to look at the obvious facts staring everyone in the face. Sure, people need cars at different times, and more so at different ages and in different conditions. But that’s not the question — the question is whether we have the balance right. Because there’s also costs of having a society where everyone — regardless of age and physical condition — is heavily encouraged, by financial subsidy and by fear of physical harm, to always use a car virtually regardless of type of trip. This listserv, sadly, is wholly devoid of any rational discussion of that fact, and the tradeoffs that entails.

[Paul tries to frame the controversy between drivers and bicyclists as a partisan political one, an argument between conservatives and liberals. That doesn’t work, especially since he is replying to postings in the last issue by Ann Loikow and Denise Wiktor. I’ll let those two ladies defend their deeply conservative, Republican leanings for themselves, if they wish, in the next issue of themail. — Gary Imhoff]


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