I admit that a 144-page book about a District agency that helps regulate public utilities does not sound like it would make for scintillating reading. The title of the book is not encouraging: “The Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia: The First 100 Years — Protecting the Public Interest 1913-2013.”
And the photos on the cover — which include a man on a ladder changing a light bulb and a group of clipboard-toting people staring intently at a pay phone — do not scream, “Pick me up!”
Still, if you like Washington history, you may find the amply illustrated book — and let’s just shorten that title to “PSC: 1913-2013” — fascinating.
I did. The book was published by the Public Service Commission in belated recognition of the agency’s 100th anniversary. Last week, I moderated a panel discussion with its authors — Mara Cherkasky and Phylicia Fauntleroy Bowman — and the chairman of the PSC, Betty Ann Kane.
“This is the first book launch the commission has ever done,” said Betty Ann, who served on the D.C. Council in the 1970s and 1980s. About 200 people showed up to celebrate at the PSC’s headquarters at 13th and G streets NW. There was cake.
Public utility commissions such as the District’s grew out of the Progressive Movement. Trusts were being busted, and legislators and private citizens were wondering whether electric companies, gas companies, streetcar companies and the like ought to have some official oversight when setting prices and interacting with customers.
Robert M. LaFollette, a Wisconsin senator with the shock of wiry John Brownesque hair that many firebrands possess, helped enact legislation that created the D.C. agency that was then called the Public Utilities Commission.
I confess that before I read the book, I didn’t give much thought to how a public utility commission works. Basically, its staff investigates how much a utility owns (buildings, other property, etc.), how much it costs — and is likely to cost in the future — to run the business, and how many customers it has. The commission is then supposed to approve rates that provide a profit — and a return on investment — that is fair to the shareholders and the customers.
In the early days of the PSC, the regulated businesses were less than thrilled. The District’s taxicab companies refused to recognize the commission’s legitimacy. The streetcar companies and Pepco — the electric company that had been created to supply power to the District’s streetcars — fought the commission for years, declining to provide information.
Eventually, the two sides came to an uneasy truce.
Yes, it sounds boring, but “PSC: 1913-2013” includes little reminders that bureaucrats are people. And people are interesting. For example, although the PSC was not created as a civil rights agency, commissioners and staff members recognized that a segregated District was not only bad for citizens but was also bad for business.
Capital Transit, the streetcar company, had always maintained that it couldn’t hire black drivers because white drivers would refuse to work with them. When it went before the PSC in 1954 to ask for a rate increase, the PSC refused, pointing out that the company’s inflexible position on hiring was doubtless contributing to higher labor costs. The next year, Capital Transit integrated its workforce.
The PSC has shed some of its responsibilities. After the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was created, the PSC no longer regulated buses and trolleys. It lost taxicabs, too. (Interestingly, almost from the start, the commission argued for meters in taxicabs, as opposed to the old — and confusing — zone system. For decades, Congress overruled that recommendation.)
Today, the PSC regulates electric, natural gas and telecommunications services. Whether Pepco will remain an independent utility company or be acquired by Exelon, a Chicago-based energy giant, is one of the issues that has been on the agency’s plate recently.
The telephone business has changed in 100 years. Take pay phones: After the Federal Communications Commission started allowing competition in the coin-operated phone business in 1984, pay phones boomed, soon numbering 10,000 in the District. Some neighborhoods saw them as a blight, magnets for drug dealers, and the PSC set rules for handling complaints. By 2013, the number of payphones had shrunk to 50. In a world of cellphones, who, besides Superman, needs a phone booth?
The commission is putting a copy of “PSC: 1913-2013” in each District library. If you want to arrange to pick up one of your own, contact Kristen Benjamin Randolph, consumer education and outreach specialist, at 202-626-5100 or email@example.com.
Don’t forget: Squirrel Week (the sixth annual!) is fast approaching. If you have a question about squirrels, send me an e-mail. I’ll try to answer it. And if you’d like to enter my squirrel photography contest, send a killer image of a squirrel to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline is March 31. For complete rules, visit wapo.st/squirrelcontestrules.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.