A local research group warned yesterday that regional cooperation in the Washington metropolitan area "is unraveling," as local governments and politics "are turning inward under various pressures."
In a survey of how the localities approach such concerns as mass transit, water supplies, sewage treatment and urban planning, the Greater Washington Research Center concluded that these problems might best be addressed through a new intergovernmental authority.
The report characterized the "inward turning" of the jurisdictions this way: "In 1960, Fairfax County was trying to get into the region; by 1980, it was building its own downtown (Tysons Corner) and was heavily preoccupied with internal complexities and growth problems. Montgomery County, in part reacting to what it saw as a state drain on its fiscal resources, turned from a postion of regional leadership to a posture of trying 'to control its own destiny.'
"The population of Arlington County has aged and now responds to antitax and antischool politics where it once responded to the opposite. Prince George's County has been turned inward by the school busing controversy, TRIM (tax-cutting) politics, opposition to low-income housing, and a much enlarged council.
"In addition, the suburban jurisdictions also have been turned inward by the District's demand for a commuter tax."
The District, the report added, "is preoccupied with its struggle for home rule and with its financial problems."
The report said attempts at regional cooperation are also faltering as state governments become more involved in local affairs, with older suburbs losing their political cout in Annapolis and Richmond.
The report also noted the "growing strain in federal-local relations," adding that increased frustration over federal regulations has made suburban localities more interested in relying on state funds where possible.
"Local governments are facing increasing costs for regional services and at the same time encountering increasing local pressure to keep taxes down," said the report's author, Edwin T. Haefele, a consultant to the center and a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
In a paper entitled "how Should the Region Be Governed?" Haefele suggests that the factionalism could be resolved by setting up a metrowide service district to manage and finance regional services.
That kind of approach, he said, would take local politics out of decision-making and metrowide service costs out of local government budgets.
Establishing a single, intergovernmental authority over mass transit, air quality control, water, solid waste disposal and sewer services has already been proposed in Congress. The idea, however, has not won the endorsement of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). e
COG, set up to foster the very regional cooperation that Haefele's report says is needed, recently voted 8 to 6 against the concept of a Metro district authority for fear, in part, of creating a third layer of government.
"I imagine it would be very difficult to come up with a regional agency," said Elizabeth L. Scull, a member of the Montgomery County Council and COG's chairman. She said the beleaguered regional Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission makes local officials skeptical of a regional superagency.
Scull also challenged the report's contention that regional cooperation is on the wane, while conceding that areawide decision making is "a terribly slow and cumbersome process."
Stephen H. Detwiler, vice chairman of the Arlington County Board and COG's president, said he had not seen the report but did not agree with statements suggesting a lack of regional cooperation.
"It seems to me there is a broader focus on regional problems now than 10 years ago," said Detwiler, who said he was concerned that any new government entity would have its own taxing powers.
Haefele, however, argued that his conclusions were "not off the top of my head," but had been offered after conferring with numerous local and regional officials who, he said, "can't say some of these things" for political reasons.
He cited the continuing controversies over Metro funding, the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant and the proposed sewage treatment facility at Dickerson in northwest Montgomery County as examples of why regioal problem-solving needs to be improved.
Metropolitan-wide pricing and taxing mechanisms for area services, he said, probably would work better and be self-supporting.
Such a central authority could, according to Haefele, provide funds to repair roads in the District that are heavily used by Virginia and Maryland commuters.
That, he said, would be a more accepatable solution than the proposed D.C. commuter tax "which the District is never going to get politically."
Haefele's paper is part of the center's "State of the Region Report," which will be published in June.