Robert McCartney: Obama Administration Must Fulfill Pledge to Help D.C. Region

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, August 6, 2009

President Obama has munched on junk food at Five Guys and Ben's Chili Bowl to show the Washington region what a good new neighbor he is. Now it's time to go beyond the symbolic restaurant visits and take some practical steps to help the area.

Happily, his administration is moving in that direction. It's drawing up more stringent regulations to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. It's studying ways to revitalize Southeast when the Department of Homeland Security moves to the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus there. It's now open to giving the Metrorail system a steady flow of federal dollars, finally, starting in the autumn, if Congress approves.

In addition, under the leadership of Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest advisers, the White House has taken initial steps to build a close working relationship with the metropolitan area. Jarrett and other high-ranking administration officials held an unusual, low-profile meeting July 20 with politicians and planners representing the Washington region. They discussed cooperating on transportation, environmental protection, rebuilding poor urban neighborhoods and other issues.

"I wanted it to be the beginning of what I expect will be a long and fruitful relationship where the federal government can be an active partner . . . supporting the hopes and dreams of the people in this area," Jarrett said in an interview. "What we can do is make sure the right people are talking to one another."

So far, the effort consists mostly of rhetoric, gestures and planning. The real tests will be whether the anti-pollution measures have teeth and whether there's money and effective coordination to raise the quality of life in urban and suburban communities.

For now, though, the initiative has delighted local elected officials and planners. They had a cool relationship with the Bush administration, and things weren't so great with its predecessors. Although the federal government has an enormous footprint in the region, local leaders have long complained that it was aloof, inconsistent and sometimes counterproductive in making strategic planning decisions such as where to place buildings or roads.

The meeting "was an opportunity that we've never had before," said Penelope A. Gross, a Fairfax County supervisor (D-Mason) who co-hosted the discussion as rotating chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "There is no way we could have had this dialogue with the previous administration."

Jarrett says the mission is personal for her, because she now resides in the District and because of her experiences in Chicago as a top planning and transit official. "One of my largest frustrations when I worked in local government was the federal government," she said. "You'd go to HUD, you'd go to Transportation, you'd go to EPA, and often you'd get conflicting signals." She added that her longtime friend, the president, had "similar frustrations" when he worked as a community organizer and state legislator.

The Washington region is familiar with the problem. One of the biggest recent examples was the decision by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, or BRAC, to move thousands of jobs from sites near Metro stations to ones barely on a bus route. The EPA failed to fulfill its pledges for cleaning up the Chesapeake. Local leaders find it maddening that the federal government -- the region's single biggest employer, accounting for about a third of the area's economy -- often is not represented when key decisions are being made.

The White House is committed to helping metropolitan regions nationwide and has a political motive for doing so: They tend to vote Democratic. It has a special interest in the Washington area as the seat of government and a handy showcase for its policies.

The administration's enthusiasm for mass transit is especially welcome. In the wake of the Red Line crash, officials say the administration won't oppose adding $150 million in spending for Metro in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, as the full House and the Senate Appropriations Committee have approved.

In other steps, J. Charles Fox, the EPA's senior adviser on the Chesapeake Bay, told local officials at a retreat Saturday that EPA measures to be announced next month to help the bay will tighten regulations on water pollution associated with development. Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, said his agency was looking at how to promote retail and other private business development in Southeast to capitalize on Homeland Security's move there.

The region benefits from a high-level friendship: Acosta is close to Jarrett, who was his boss at two agencies in Chicago in the 1990s. Both said their grass-roots experience gives them insight into how much can be achieved when federal and local authorities cooperate. The region will be watching to see whether they deliver.


One important player not directly represented at the meeting was the local business community. Asked for his wish list from the administration, Greater Washington Board of Trade President James C. Dinegar said he hoped it would pick up some of the local costs of BRAC, allow taller buildings in the District and clean up the Mall. He cautioned against letting the federal government get "too involved in planning," for fear it would limit local flexibility.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). E-mail me at

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