Many people have ridiculed the District of Columbia‘s periodic financial crises over the past century as evidence of bad governance.
While that has certainly been the case from time to time, there are two fundamental challenges they face that are unique.
First, they have vast tracts of real estate owned by the federal government and large universities, on which no property tax is paid.
Second, unlike all other “cities,” they have no state on which to rely for assistance.
For decades, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has been trying to remedy both of these problems. But, more recently, she tried to remedy the funding gap to some degree via new federal legislation.
On May 22, 2023, Norton introduced the District of Columbia Transportation Funding Equality Act, which would make D.C. eligible for three federal programs that support the redevelopment and revitalization of public transportation systems in the same manner that states are currently eligible.
The bill would also make D.C. eligible for a program to support the replacement and removal of infrastructure that damages the ecosystems of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
“D.C. residents pay the same federal taxes as residents of the states,” Norton said. “In fact, D.C. pays more federal taxes per capita than any state. D.C. should be treated as a state in federal programs.”
Here is Norton’s full introductory statement on the Introduction of the District of Columbia Transportation Funding Equality Act:
May 22, 2023
I rise to introduce the District of Columbia Transportation Funding Equality Act. The bill would make the District of Columbia eligible for three federal programs that support the development and revitalization of public transportation systems in the same manner that states are currently eligible for these programs. It would also make D.C. eligible for a transportation program that would support the replacement and removal of infrastructure that damages the ecosystems of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. D.C. residents pay the same federal taxes as residents of the states. In fact, D.C. pays more federal taxes per capita than any state. D.C. should be treated as a state in federal programs.
First, the bill would treat D.C. as a state in the High-Density States Formula for certain grants from the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund.
Currently, only states are eligible for these grants.
Second, the bill would treat D.C. as a state under the Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program. Under this program, each state is authorized to receive a minimum amount of $4 million per year, while D.C. is authorized to receive a minimum of only $1 million.
Third, the bill would treat D.C. as a state under the National Culvert Removal, Replacement, and Restoration Grant Program. Currently, only states and units of local government are eligible for these competitive grants, and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has held that D.C. does not qualify, even though it operates as the functional equivalent of a joint city, county and state.
Fourth, the bill would treat D.C. as a state for the purposes of the Safe Streets for All Program. Cities, counties and political subdivisions of a state are eligible for these grants, but DOT has held that D.C. is ineligible.
The programs in the bill fund the modernization of bus and rail fleets, the purchase of zero-emission transit vehicles, the improvement of station accessibility for all users, the extension of transit service to new communities, the replacement and repair of culverts, and the implementation of roadway safety improvements for all road users.
They especially benefit communities of color, since these households are twice as likely to use public transportation.
Last Congress, the House’s surface transportation reauthorization act, the INVEST in America Act, would have made D.C. eligible for these four programs in the same manner as states.
Unfortunately, the enacted surface transportation reauthorization act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which the Senate wrote, did not.