Is Washington, D.C. finally about to become a state?

Washington, D.C., yesterday. Image: public domain.

While Americans go to the polls on 8 November to elect a new president, the residents of Washington, DC will also vote on a slightly lesser known issue - whether their district should become a state.

The District of Columbia is unique in this denial of its civil rights. DC does neither have full control of its local affairs, nor voting representation in the House of Representatives. As the nation’s capital, it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the US Congress.

Over the years, a political movement has formed calling for statehood. There have been many fruitless attempts towards statehood,  the most recent in 1982, when citizens were last consulted on the issue. The effort went largely ignored by Congress…

Will this referendum be different? DC Mayor Muriel Bowser hopes so. Her idea for an advisory referendum plan and a state constitution was unveiled back in April. A draft document was debated, and in October the city council approved the proposed constitution should the district became a state.

The initial name ‘New Columbia’ has been dropped for the simpler ‘State of Washington D.C.’ - D.C. standing for Douglass Commonwealth, in honour of the abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass.

So how would DC become a state?

DC can do so by either amending the US constitution, or by having Congress pass a bill that would grant the district state rights. Many believe constitutional amendment is necessary, however, Alan B. Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington University, asserts that technically “no amendment to the US constitution is required for DC statehood.”

Hence, Mayor Bowser is pursuing option two. The plan would follow the steps of the process used in 1796 to admit Tennessee as the 16th US State, that included establishing and ratifying a constitution and establishing necessary governance means such as selection of delegates and representatives.

Were a possible future state to be formed, a constitutional convention to allow residents to fine-tune the document would be held – a last-minute DC Council requirement that vindicated Bowser’s critics for drafting a state constitution with limited citizen input.

Who wants statehood?

Statehood approvals within the District of Columbia are at record high, with recent polls pegging them at 70 per cent. However nationwide, the approval only amounts to around 27 per cent.

President Obama expressed his support for statehood in 2014, though more recently he has been accused of remaining silent on the issue. The Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised to be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood if elected president. Naturally, DC Republicans have been supportive too. Yet, at the national level, the GOP oppose the plan aggressively, while Donald Trump also appears to be reluctantly against

Muriel Bowser has been mounting the pressure. In April For the first time in 200 years, the DC Council has challenged Congress over its power to approve the local city budget. The Mayor and Council planned to implement a $13 billion spending plan without congressional approval. Yet, soon afterwards the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a bill to block the city from enacting the measure. Subsequently Mayor Bowser maintained that such difficulties with Congress helped demonstrate the need to make the city the 51st state.

What happens after the election?

The morale boost of a decisive statehood backing would be immense. DC voters have not expressed themselves about statehood for 34 years. The referendum is both a means to gauge public opinion and a tool to put pressure on Congress by acknowledging that the three pre-conditions for statehood are met: a state constitution, boundaries, and acceptance of a representative form of government by a majority of the city's residents.

Still, it will take determination to get Congress to go along with DC statehood.  The biggest obvious barrier to achieving statehood is Republicans in Congress. “As long as they have a majority—or strong minority—in either chamber, they're not going to let it go forward,” says Washingtonian staff writer Ben Freed, who covers local politics. “For states that lean Republican, the likelihood of two more democratic senators will be a problem,” agrees Alan B. Morrison.

Mayor Bowser is hoping for a more favourable political environment – especially if the Democrats gain control of both the House of Representatives and Senate. However, even that wouldn’t be a silver bullet to statehood, as also Democrats have proven fickle with regards to this issue.

Alan B. Morrison believes that the biggest challenge in achieving statehood is “getting the word out and getting others interested in our plight.” It is important that people understand “how unfair the current regime is,” he says and stresses the unfortunate situation in which DC residents pay federal taxes and serve in the army but have no say in their government (hence the famous slogan Taxation without representation).

But there are other barriers, too. Quite simply, DC is not ready to be a state because it is not equipped to carry out many of the functions that states are expected to. “The elements of statehood fall into two categories. One can be called the ‘levers of democracy,’ like budget autonomy and changing the attorney-general position from an appointed one to an elected one,” explains Ben Freed, adding that there is also “the public services residents of states expect from their governments.”

DC does not fund its own judicial system. Criminal prosecutions are handled by the US attorney's office, courts are paid for with federal funds, and convicted criminals are housed in jails all over the country. Nor does it have a reputable public research university that can attract top-tier academic talent. “Quite simply, even if we're emotionally ready for statehood, we're not structurally prepared,” he says.

Even if statehood attempts do not succeed, there are steps that could improve today’s deadlock. Allowing the district’s representative in Congress to vote would be a brilliant first step that would allow for direct representation. An overwhelming win in next week’s referendum would certainly help. As Washingtonian’s Freed puts it: “the moral case for statehood is unimpeachable.” 

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.