D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks at the CityLab 2016 summit in Miami. C2 Photography

What traffic congestion on city streets has in common with the U.S. Congress.

MIAMI—Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C., says that the current pace of population growth will soon boost her city’s population toward its historical highs. The city is gaining an estimated 1,000 net residents per month, she says, and more than 800,000 residents will call D.C. home within 20 years. That would be quite an accomplishment, since the city’s population is about 670,000 people today.

To facilitate that growth, D.C. needs to expand and improve its infrastructure. The performance of the Metrorail system is of utmost importance to residents, present and future. Especially since Metro is already failing the city: Recent safety and performance lapses have since led to unprecedented planned service interruptions in order to speed up the pace of maintenance. In the meantime, across-the-board ridership fell by 6 percent in 2015, with passengers taking 20 million fewer trips by rail or bus. Adding more residents will only increase stress on an overtaxed system if the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority can’t make up its estimated $275 million budget gap and begin investing in capital improvements.

“We cannot grow with gridlock,” Bowser told Jonathan Woetzel, a senior partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, during a live conversation at The Atlantic’s CityLab 2016 summit in Miami.

Bowser means gridlock two ways. The city has added about 86,000 residents since 2000, but the region hasn’t invested in Metro as it should have over the past 40 years. As passengers turn away from Metro’s rail service, the fear is that they are putting more cars on the streets. “We do okay with traffic, but we have a lot of traffic,” she said.

Gridlock also refers to the familiar Washington phenomenon. Congress can’t (or won’t) get anything done. Many state legislatures are arrested by the same problem. Cities are unique in their ability “to go from idea to implementation pretty quickly,” Bowser said, owing in part to their more agile civic structures. And in D.C., residents gain a lot from their proximity to the seat of federal government, but they also do not have full self determination as a result.

To facilitate its fast growth, D.C. needs greater autonomy. (Autonomy, but not necessarily self-driving cars, Mayor Bowser said: “We need as many ways as possible to get people around D.C., not hopefully in a single occupied vehicle, whether it’s autonomous or not.”) Metro is subject to oversight by D.C., Maryland, and Virginia; local political conditions in each of these places determines the overall regional enthusiasm for funding Metro. So does Congress.

For example, Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has publicly opposed Mayor Bowser’s suggestion of a one-cent regional sales tax or other dedicated funding stream for Metro. While Governor Hogan recently softened his position after talks with Bowser and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, the multi-jurisdictional authority over Metro gives many leaders a potential veto.

Congress, too, has great sway over Metro’s decision-making. The federal government does not fund Metro’s operations; instead, it provides funding for long-term maintenance and capital investments, to the tune of $150 million annually since 2008. Facing a severe deficit last year, WMATA dipped into this maintenance purse to make up its budget. Now, Congress is threatening to cut off this funding altogether if Metro decides to tap into it for short-term needs again.

Missing from this conversation: the voice of D.C. residents, who rely on Metro most but lack full representation in Congress. While Metro provides an undeniable benefit to the federal government, that is of limited importance outside of D.C., where “inside-the-Beltway” functions as a civic slur. Gridlock (of the traffic variety) will be a major impediment to D.C.’s growth. Gridlock (of the legislative variety) is a unique frustration for residents who have little or no say in decisions about regional governance.  

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