Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.
We chatted with David Catania, DC councilmember at large and an independent candidate for mayor of the District of Columbia, today at noon. Here is a transcript of the discussion.
David Alpert: Welcome to our chat. I’m here in Catania HQ with Aimee Custis, Ashley Robbins, Jonathan Neeley, and Abigail Zenner. We’ll get started in just a minute.
I am going to be asking questions verbally to Mr. Catania, who will answer verbally. Aimee, Ashley, and Jonathan will be taking turns typing in his words.
That means that if there are any typos, they are our fault and not Mr. Catania’s. We suggested this arrangement to ensure we can get a lot of questions and answers in (it has nothing to do with Mr. Catania’s typing ability).
I want to ask as many of your questions as possible. Please tweet them with hashtag #ggwchat and I will be able to post them directly to the chat.
David Alpert: Okay, David Catania is here with us. Let’s get started!
Welcome to the chat, Councilmember Catania!
David Catania: Thank you very much! I’m really excited to participate. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for a long time and I’m eager to get started!
David Alpert: To get started: What makes you the best candidate for mayor of DC?
David Catania: The District of Columbia has had reversals the last twenty years. When I first joined the council, we had a pretty bad budget shortfall. We’ve worked very had to reverse this trajectory. I have the vision and the values to make that happen.
It’s a combination of record and experience coupled with the items I helped champion in my 17 years, and in our vision statement, which you can find at cataniaplatform.com, people can see the specifics of what I’d like to do to secure our city’s future.
David Alpert: What initiatives from other cities do you admire and which you would like to bring to DC?
David Catania: During this campaign I’ve been talking a lot about what Mayor Bloomberg has done at Roosevelt Island. Specifically, the partnership between the city and Cornell and Israel Institute of Technology. It’s a very ambitious $2 billion program to double the number of engineers and people with Ph.Ds in engineering in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg understood that financial services is a sector of the economy that’s shrinking in New York. Doubling the number of engineers and individuals with PhDs in engineering is critical.
In 2000, I authored the New Economy Transformation Act, which included a host of incentives to bring tech companies to the city. We’ve been successful under this program. There were financial incentives, and other incentives. We’ve brought over 200 companies to the city. These companies, in order to grow, have to have a work force that permits them to grow, and that means more engineers than we are producing here locally.
Engineers are incredible job multipliers. Every engineer produces 4.2 jobs. In our city, our two largest industries are government and legal services, and these are not growing industries, in fact they’re shrinking. The next mayor has to be consumed with how we’ll continue to grow our economy, and I propose an increase in new economy companies.
I’d like to see this growth located on the St. Elizabeth’s campus, the same campus as Homeland Security. Successful innovation is often the function of a partnership between government, education, and private sector. I see the St. Elizabeth’s campus as a focal point for opportunity in our city.
David Alpert: OK, let’s talk about transit for a bit. Andrew asked: In the several years that I’ve been a resident of DC, late-night, off-peak, and weekend Metrorail service has slowed to a trickle, while WMATA’s much-touted bus investments have had little tangible benefit for riders. What will you do to encourage Metro to provide services that are more useful to DC residents?
David Catania: Many of the issues surrounding late night service with Metro is a function of our underinvestment in maintenance in the past. The system is really under a great deal of duress because of that lack of investment, which means it’s often harder for us to keep the system in service.
Some of the ideas that are proposed under the Metro Momentum plan, which include additional pocket tracks and investments, will help with reliability but over the next 25 years will cost quite a bit.
I think there’s quite a lot we can do about late night service for public transit across the city. It means greater investments in dedicated bus lanes and extended hours, and it means increasing our maintenance budget for Metro through a dedicated funding service so we’re not constantly putting band-aids on a system with a legacy of underinvestment.
David Alpert: You mentioned the streetcar program. Earlier this year, the DC Council diverted much of the funding for the streetcar program to tax cuts. What’s your plan to fund the streetcar program, and how soon would you enact it once mayor?
David Catania: I’d like to first explain, I have a long history with the streetcars. It started with Dan Tangherlini in 2002 who was with WMATA and I was a WMATA alternate.
In 2004, the very first streetcar proposed was the Anacostia light rail program. It was budgeted, and shepherded it through not only the Council but also WMATA, and I was there ten years ago for the groundbreaking.
The complications associated with the right of way meant that line was moved to H Street. I think it’s important to explain this. When it came time to purchase the first three cars, I was instrumental in identifying the first ten million dollars for the first three cars.
In 2004, Dan Tangherlini and I took a leap of faith and bought the cars before we had a system. I believe that created a momentum for the light rail system that has seen it to fruition.
The council during the six-year capital improvement plan did reduce the nine million dollar investment not by half, but significantly. I’m still dedicated to the entire North-South and East-West lines. It may take a few more years to accomplish than proposed but we have to be flexible with it.
When I’m elected mayor, I’m going to look at ways at capturing increased property values and increased assessments of light rail, so the system can be funded by the virtue of increased property taxes created by the increase in property investment.
At the end of the day, its not about whether we’ll build East-West versus North-South. I plan to be a part of completing that commitment.
David Alpert: Years ago, you argued that it was important for the streetcar to start in Ward 8. But a lot of people in Ward 8, including the councilmember, don’t support it. Do you still think we should build the streetcar there, and if you’re mayor, how will you work with Ward 8 to build support for it?
David Catania: I don’t think there was ever any accurate polling to suggest a lot of people don’t support it. To the contrary, I think there’s a lot of evidence people do support it. And that Ward 8 is one of the most transit-dependent communities in the city.
I stand by that view and I hope we can reengage CSX regarding the right-of-way along the Anacostia. National Harbor is essentially the downtown of Prince George’s County and I’d like to be able to connect people to opportunities there.
David Catania: Absolutely. I think we’re going to learn some lessons the hard way with how we’re approaching light rail on H Street. I think it would have been smarter for us to have designated rights of way down the street rather than on the sides. I think that’s going to create safety traffic, transportation, and delivery issues.
We’re expecting 170,000 additional residents over the next 25 years. We have to find a way to efficiently and safely and economically transport individuals around the city. I’m a fan of dedicated bus service as light rail, but when I look at he capacity of light rail cars than buses, light rail has double the capacity of buses. There’s a great case for efficiency in dedicated lanes for light rail and for the expansion of the system.
David Catania: This is a more than $20 billion expenditure over the next 25 years. I’ve been very vocal about themed to have a designated funding source for wmata. For all jurisdictions that participate, I think there’s great value in certainty. For some that might mean an additional funding source. Before we talk about funding Momentum, we have to talk about our existing capital improvement plans.
I’m sure your readers appreciate that, for instance, when were purchasing the additional cars to fund a eight car service, because we don’t have a dedicated funding source, Metro isn’t always able to exercise options on procurements. We have to start from scratch.
That’s an incredibly inefficient way to purchase cars or other materials for our system. So a dedicated funding source will rationalize our funding with respect to our existing needs. Going forward, I’d hope that dedicated source would lead to additional resources.
I for one would lead that as the mayor of the District of Columbia. Metro is the tie that binds us, and if we don’t take care of it, it will lead to our undoing. I’d look at gas tax, I’d look at regional sales tax, and I’d look at capturing value from the properties that are immediately adjacent to Metro stations that bear the greatest benefit from proximity to Metro.
David Alpert: Let’s move to housing and development for a bit.
How will you grow housing supply for residents who cant afford luxury apts but don't qualify for affordable housing? #GGWchat— Alex Beaton (@AlexBeatonDC) October 22, 2014
David Catania: The city doesn’t have a housing plan, period. And I appreciate the often narrow self interest, but as a mayor, you have to house the whole family. That means there’s a focus on individuals below 30% AMI — we need to have a focus on them. We have individuals who require partial assistance, and then we have those who make very good livings but there’s still a lack of affordability.
We need to look at a couple of things, one, the city owned land that’s in our possession and how we make that available. We look at easing and improving the regulatory ability to get licenses issued and plans approved and that means sitting down with planners and developers about what they’re facing. I think we have quite a lot of unallocated federal resources — $110 million for affordable housing that went unused.
Simply put, we lack a plan, and it’s one of our biggest challenges. We used to have a really robust HPAP program, a housing purchasing plan. In 2008, we spent nearly $30 million helping individuals purchase their own homes, with up to $70,000 per family in down payment and closing cost assistance.
So, NYC provides a great example on how to provide mixed income housing opportunities. They merge federal resources with local support. In New York, they take their tax-exempt bonds, which we presently don’t use all of ours, and we marry them with 30-year exemptions on property tax in exchange for 20% of the units in the building being available to low-income individuals.
So it gives you the opportunity to have mixed income in what are otherwise, higher income buildings. The city’s been able to produce thousands of units that aren’t strictly market based.
David Alpert: You mentioned city-owned land. The council is now debating whether to require a certain amount of affordable housing in any project built on public land. What do you think about such a requirement?
David Catania: On its face, it’s very compelling. But having hard and fast percentages can play mischief in advancing housing generally. For example, when we try to do mixed-income development. It’s illustrated in our New Communities projects. We try to create mixed income in communities where there’s no demand for middle income, so the entire project stalls because we have these artificial expectations.
In theory, I absolutely support the requirement of low and moderate incomes in housing developments. But we have to look project by project and at the end of the day the financials have to work.
One of the things I want to focus on is that we spend a lot of time talking about new construction and at the same time we’re ignoring the avalanche we’re facing in the world of preserving existing affordable housing. There are more than 50 buildings under affordability covenants that in the next give years will be released from those covenants.
These are buildings that were financed with federal low income housing tax credits and federal tax-exempt bonds. These buildings lose any limitations on increases in rent, we’re facing an avalanche of thousands of units that will lose affordability in the next five years.
I appreciate that we should be focused on building new units but as much attention must be focused on preserving existing units. Up until now, I’ve seen no plan of this. Recently, I was able to intervene and help the residents of Museum Square keep their apartments, but we need a global solution to these affordability challenges.
David Alpert: AC asks: You’ve talked a little about existing supply, but a lot of affordable housing advocates in the city are curious to hear you on record about Inclusionary Zoning. Can you tell us where you stand on that program?
David Catania: I supported inclusionary zoning in 2006. Inclusionary zoning is a fantastic principle, but it has yet to produce any meaningful supply. In the first five, six, seven years of inclusionary zoning, fewer than 100 units were created, and I think the real number is closer to 50.
We need to understand more deeply why inclusionary zoning is not producing the supply that we were anticipating and hoping for. So often we can have really terrific ideas that fail in execution, and we need to circle back and examine why that is. Sometimes you need mid-stream corrections.
Utilize a provision in the bill that I authored in 2002, which gives the District the opportunity to purchase when Section 8s are coming out. The reality is that individuals who are in building-based Section 8 apartments are not able to purchase the units, so giving those tenants the opportunity to purchase is to give them something that isn’t real. That’s what lead me to the district opportunity to purchase so that we can, as a city, manage these purchases. I think it’s an indispensable tool and one that’s never been used in maintaining affordability.
David Catania: To be clear, in the old city, I don’t favor any change to the height requirement. In the rest of the city, I think these issues should be decided by our local legislature and local mayor with input from the population.
I personally am not keen on the notion of raising the height limit in our city. I believe there’s plenty of infill capacity in our city to meet needs, but you can never say never. At this point, I don’t support it though.
David Alpert: Especially when the height limit restricts the amount of housing near existing transit.
David Catania: One of the things that we can do is expand the quantity of transit. Light rail provides that opportunity. I agree if we were holding steady in our current infrastructure, it does really push greater density around those locations. But if through dedicated bus lanes and an expansion of light rain, we could extend the transit capacity throughout the city, it diminishes the need for intense density around a few locations.
David Catania: I think the community has done an excellent job in putting together this 25-year plan. One of our biggest challenges, if I’m not mistaken, that it’s a nearly $50 billion investment and only half the funds have been procured, so we’re going to have to get creative in terms of financing.
Financing aside, I think there are a lot of exciting components. The two-year plan has some elements I’d like to move forward with immediately, from Klingle to Anacostia trails. Sidewalk safety and dedicated bus lanes are important. The continued focus on pedestrian safety is important. There are many elements in the two-year plan and the 25-year plan that are exciting.
The challenge is for us to make the investments today and begin planning today for that transition. I’m eager to get started with this execution. We’re going to have 140,000 new residents over the next quarter century.
In terms of an organizing philosophy around transportation, there are issues with ethics, engineering, education, and enforcement. Each of them plays a role in building a balanced, community-centric transportation system.
David Alpert: You mentioned a few elements like buses and sidewalks but we haven’t gotten to talk yet about bicycles. ChrisRHamilton asked in the last chat: Progressive mayors across the country have started to compete for businesses and the best and the brightest young folks by making their cities the most bike-friendly. While the District is making good incremental progress on becoming more bike-friendly, largely following the initiatives started under Mayor Fenty, do you envision ramping up the pace of change in installing protected bike lanes, bike parking and bikeshare so that it is more transformative or do you think the current pace of change is good enough?
David Catania: There are many core elements of moveDC that I embrace, including 200 miles of bike lanes. When I go back to the issues of education and enforcement, I think we’ve done a really terrible job of educating the public on what bikes contribute to our community. Obviously, there are huge environmental benefits from cycling. It also helps dramatically reduce demand for existing roadways — we’re up to 14,000 cyclists.
The third area which is rarely talked about is how cycling contributes to the economic development of our city. Many people bike out of economic necessity. But for others — the cost of operating an average medium size sedan in our country is between $8,000 and 9,000 per year. If we can convince more of our residents to forgo that investment and instead use bicycles, they’ll spend those thousands of dollars here locally in housing, retail and supporting our local economy. This may be overly simplistic but if you look at 14k cyclists forgoing that 8k a year, there’s over $100 million in economic opportunity for our city when we’re not buying cars and fighting wars overseas but instead investing in our communities. It’s a very powerful economic development tool and we’ve never communicated that importance to the population.
Long story short, count me in. There are very important tools for our city. The better opportunity is to educate our city as to where they’re located.
We can get really into the weeds about how some of our streets are better for bike lanes than others. Our one-way streets that are 30-feet wide provide great opportunities for one lane of traffic, one lane of bikes, and one for parked cars.
I prefer to look at things where we can have win-win instead of zero sum. The bike plan isn’t taking anything away from drivers but is in fact is a traffic calming device.
David Alpert: You talked about a win-win and not zero sum, but bike planners have concluded that not everywhere is it possible to build a bike lane without taking away any parking or any travel lane. How do you balance the need to get community input with the fact that at some point, not everyone is going to be on board with everything?
David Catania: It’s really a challenge to make generalized answers to hypotheticals. I’ve made it a practice to cast a wide net and bring people together, and it doesn’t mean everyone gets exactly what they want, but that there’s a give and take and sometimes you lose in some items and lose in others. I know tough decisions have to be made. But you have to make them.
David Alpert: You’ve talked in your platform about Vision Zero, the idea that no loss of life or serious injury is acceptable within a given area’s transportation system. How, specifically, would you start taking action on Vision Zero?
David Catania: Sweden has figured out how to reduce their deaths by more than 40% by a combination of engineering and values. I commend both the mayors of San Francisco and New York for executing elements of Vision Zero. I think education is an incredibly important element.
One of the things I like about the Swedish model is the emphasis on simple things. When you open the car door, you open it by using your right hand rather than your left. It actually physically forces a person to turn and get accustomed to looking for a cyclist. That’s a simple example.
Through engineering roads that are safer, establishing consistent speed limits depending on the likelihood of pedestrian use, issues of concentration at the most dangerous intersections. The use of engineering and evidence and education to lower incidents. There are ways for us to take elements and execute it right away.
So creating an infrastructure that accommodates those with an underpinning of the value of human life is something I don’t think we do here, and we should. Respect for human life and understanding human frailties.
It’s looking at educating our population, at re-engaging a traffic enforcement division. The enforcement in our own city is a missing component as well as the underlying respect for human life. Educating pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers is critical. And having an enforcement mechanism.
David Alpert: And that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for joining us for the chat!
David Catania: I just really appreciate the five of you coming over and going through this trouble. And I appreciate people weighing in with their questions.
We’re a growing, vibrant city. For that to continue, we have to pay attention to the fundamentals of not just transportation and housing, but also issues of crime, economic development education, and at the same time we have to be prepared for crises as they come whether they be Ebola or it be changing economics.
And I really appreciate everyone coming today and the opportunity to share with your readers.
David Alpert: Thank you so much to David Catania, to all of you who submitted questions on Twitter, to our super tweeter Abigail, and to our tireless and lightning-fast typists Aimee, Ashley, and Jonathan.
Please post your thoughts on Mr. Catania’s statements in the comments on the post. And thank you all for joining us today!