Hill Approves $2 Million for Parks in D.C.

No grinch is Congress. It left the District some sparkle before leaving for its winter recess.

It approved a $2 million Interior Department award to refurbish federal parks and plant trees and shrubs across the District. That amount partly funds a $5 million-a-year, three-year "D.C. Sparkle" beautification campaign proposed in February by Interior and by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).

Local and federal leaders hailed the results and said they would seek more money next year.

"The federal government, which owns virtually all the parks in the city, has neglected them for decades, but with this significant funding, we are turning that neglect around," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). She thanked Assistant Interior Secretary M. John Berry and Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee.

The department will tap National Park Service fees to provide: $475,000 for new plantings; $460,000 to rehabilitate playing courts, fields and picnic tables at Anacostia and Fort Dupont parks; $340,000 to replace light towers and design a new concession area roof at the Carter Barron Amphitheater; and $250,000 to renovate the fountain, walks, benches and lights at Dupont Circle.

Meridian Hill Park will get $200,000 to design the first phase of a multimillion-dollar renovation; Franklin Park will receive $185,000 to rehabilitate its plaza and walks; Rawlins Park will receive $100,000 to repaint two pools and repair pavement; and Lincoln Park will get $25,000 to overhaul its playground.

-- Spencer S. Hsu

Va. Says It Purged Felons on Voter Rolls

A year after a Virginia legislative audit indicated that more than 11,000 felons were illegally registered to vote, election officials say they have regained control of the state's voter rolls, thanks to nearly $1 million in new computers.

Hugh Key, deputy secretary of the state Board of Elections, said the initial audit by a legislative watchdog agency had inflated the number of improperly registered voters beyond the actual number of 700 to 800.

Many felons were awaiting sentencing and remained eligible to vote, while others had their voting rights restored and had been rightfully returned to the rolls, Key said.

Nevertheless, "there had to have been some" felons on the rolls who did not belong there, and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report spurred the General Assembly and agency officials to improve their information gathering to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls, Key said.

Earlier this year, after an assembly appropriation, the Board of Elections installed a $982,000 voter registration system giving a two-computer workstation to each of Virginia's 135 registrars, enabling them to "e-mail anybody, anywhere," to check on the status of voters in their jurisdictions, Key said.

In September, Virginia started getting a national database on felons through its state police. The roster, updated every month, goes back to 1940. Similarly, Virginia is now using a federal "death list" to help keep its rolls current with mortality data, Key added.

"It's fait accompli," Key said. "It's not something we should do. It's done."

-- R.H. Melton

Commuter Trains Improve On-Time Rates

The delays that hampered commuter train service in the Maryland suburbs during the summer have become less frequent, but state transportation officials say there still is much room for improvement.

The worst problems were along the Maryland Rail Commuter service (MARC) line that runs from Baltimore to Union Station, known as the Camden line, where the on-time rate dropped as low as 77 percent in August.

The delays became all too frequent for commuters along the heavily traveled corridor after CSX Transportation, which operates the line, acquired half of Conrail. The change increased the volume of freight traffic.

To a lesser degree, the CSX acquisition also affected service on Maryland's Brunswick line, which runs between the District and Martinsburg, W.Va., and on Virginia Railway Express (VRE) trains along the Fredericksburg line.

Maryland transportation officials said last week that the on-time rates along the Camden line improved to 87 percent last month. Yet service is not what it was before the Conrail acquisition; on-time rates averaged 91 percent from January to May.

On-time rates along the Brunswick line and on VRE's Fredericksburg line also have improved from their summer lows and were both over 90 percent last month, officials said.

Frank Fulton, a spokesman for Maryland's Mass Transit Administration, which oversees the MARC system, said the improvement was due in part to better handling of freight traffic by CSX and to the pressure from state officials, who have made improving MARC service a priority.

"Things have gotten better, but we believe there's still much room for improvement," he said.

-- Manuel Perez-Rivas