Former mayor Williams pushes for public-private partnerships for D.C. infrastructure

Former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams took a page from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday during his keynote speech at the annual meeting of the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership.

Emanuel’s plan to use public-private partnerships to raise a $7 billion fund for infrastructure investments in public transit, sewer systems, parks and the like was approved by the Chicago City Council in April.

Williams, now president of the influential Federal City Council, told attendees at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center that the District ought to create something similar.

The District operates under a self-imposed cap on borrowing that in recent years has preserved its bond rating but limited investments in economic development and public works projects.

Williams, who pushed hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in the convention center and the Nationals’ ballpark, is now working to support a $7 billion overhaul of Union Station and would still like to see a streetcar system, which he first proposed, built in the District.

Both projects — as well as a new stadium for D.C. United on Buzzard Point — may require the District to borrow heavily up front, but the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, has effectively blocked new investments by saying they would exceed the cap.

Williams, who held the job before Gandhi, acknowledged that from a CFO’s point of view, “it’s really quite perverse and it’s really quite tragic,” to continually borrow more.

But he told the hundreds of developers and commercial real estate professionals in attendance that he was dismayed to see major domestic funds investing in infrastructure projects abroad and said there ought to be a way to bring those dollars to the city.

“We are basically burdening our future generations for a present day holiday ... but there’s got to be some moderate ... stance between that and simply taking millions and millions of dollars of investment and essentially burying it in the backyard,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to handle that.”

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who supported the debt cap as a member of the D.C. Council, included the possibility of a Chicago-style infrastructure investment fund weeks ago in his five-year economic plan. “Similar to the newly established Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a D.C. infrastructure fund can leverage public and private sources to fund infrastructure improvement and expansion efforts,” the plan reads.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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