Tag: D.C.

Privatize Washington’s Metro System

Some members of Congress are considering restructuring DC Metro’s management and oversight. Big reforms are needed given the disastrous service, safety, and financial performance of the system in recent years.

Why not privatize Metro? Countries around the world have been privatizing their transportation infrastructure in order to improve management and efficiency. Privatizing Metro buses would be straightforward, but even privatizing the subway system would not be an unheard of reform.

Hong Kong privatized its subway system in 2000. In a recent study on infrastructure, McKinsey reported:

Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation has defied the odds and delivered significant financial and social benefits: excellent transit, new and vibrant neighborhoods, opportunities for real-estate developers and small businesses, and the conservation of open space. The whole system operates on a self-sustaining basis, without the need for direct taxpayer subsidies.

MTR’s railway system covers 221 kilometers and is used by more than five million people each weekday. It not only performs well—trains run on schedule 99.9 percent of the time—but actually makes a profit: $1.5 billion in 2014. MTR fares are also relatively low compared with those of metro systems in other developed cities. The average fare for an MTR trip in 2014 was less than $1.00, well under base fares in Tokyo (about $1.50), New York ($2.75), and Stockholm (about $4.00).

That sounds pretty darn good. The average fare on the DC Metro is about $3. The on-time record of Metro is unclear, but in technical terms I think “crappy” best describes it. Note that Hong Kong’s 99.9 percent on-time record means that “of the average 5.2 million passenger trips made on the MTR heavy rail and light rail networks on each normal weekday, 5.195 million passengers safely reach their destinations within 5 minutes of their scheduled arrival times.” In 2014, “the system ran for 120 consecutive days without a single delay over eight minutes.” Wow.

That stellar performance induces strong demand for the Hong Kong system, which in turn generates high fare revenues. The ratio of passenger fares to operating costs is a high 185 percent, which means that fares fully cover operating costs and part of capital costs. MTR raises other funds for capital from real estate deals under which it gains from land value increases near stations. The Hong Kong system is profitable and unsubsidized. By contrast, the average ratio of fares to operating costs for U.S. subway systems is just 46 percent, and the systems are heavily subsidized.

The MTR is probably the best-run subway system in the world. The system is an “immaculately clean, well-signposted, cheap, regular, convenient system.” And there’s free Wi-Fi in most stations.

The system is so admired that MTR has been contracted to run systems in other cities. CNN says: “MTR Corporation now operates the London Overground, and two lines of the Beijing Metro, as well as parts of the Shenzhen and Hangzhou Metro systems in China, the Melbourne Metro in Australia and the Stockholm Metro in Sweden … London Overground enhanced its punctuality from 88.4% in 2007 to 96.7% in 2013 after MTR took over its operation for a year.”

Can we get MTR Corporation to expand into Washington? Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans wants a federal takeover of Metro, but how about a private takeover?

D.C.’s $15 Minimum Wage Will Dim Employment Prospects for Younger, Less-Skilled Workers

Yesterday the D.C. City Council unanimously approved a measure that would gradually raise the $10.50 minimum wage to $15.00 by 2020, and then index future increases to changes in the Consumer Price Index. These new scheduled increases will come on the heels of an already significant 39 percent increase currently being phased in. With the passage of this bill, D.C follows California and  in passing substantial minimum wage hikes beyond the scope of past experience in the U.S. The related adverse disemployment effects will primarily impact younger workers and people with limited job skills or educational attainment, putting the important first rung of the job ladder out of reach for many of them.

While proponents of an increase tend to focus on families, roughly half of minimum wage workers are between 16 and 24, and a more than one-fifth are teenagers. People lacking a high school diploma are more likely to be in minimum wage jobs, and even with some recent incremental improvements, the 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate for D.C. public schools is only 64.4 percent and for African-American students it is less than 62 percent. While the aggregate unemployment rate for the District might not seem alarmingly high at 6.4 percent in April, there is a lot of variation between the eight wards, with the unemployment rate as high as 9.9 percent in Ward 7 and 12 percent in Ward 8.  One survey found that almost half of responding businesses had already reduced staff or hours to cope with the first raft of minimum wage increases. Younger workers and people with limited educational attainment will find it increasingly difficult to find employment as labor costs continue to surge.

These minimum wage jobs often play an important role in helping people develop the skills they need to eventually move on to more lucrative and promising jobs, far from being a dead-end where these workers get stuck forever. The majority of minimum wage workers that stick with it get a raise within a year. An earlier study looking at data from 1979 to 2002 found that almost two-thirds of minimum wage employees who continue working earned higher than the minimum wage within a year. More recently, 72 percent of minimum wage earners got a raise between 2014 and 2015. About a fifth of these people saw their earnings rise due to mandated minimum wage increases, but 57.5 percent of people working continuously got a raise or moved into a higher-paying job outside of those effects, and this share could have been even higher in the absence of those legislated minimum wage increases. Far from stagnating in these entry-level jobs, most of the people in these positions use these opportunities as a springboard to better things.

Supporters of the new bill may say that they want to ensure that hard work is rewarded and that people can support their families, but D.C.’s substantial minimum wage increases will make it much harder for many people, especially younger workers and people with limited job skills, to find any work at all.

‘Textbook Case’ for Handguns in DC

In today’s Washington Post, Courtland Milloy says a recent stabbing in DC provides a ‘textbook case for legalizing handguns in the District.’  Here’s an excerpt:

Someone like Wright would never have been able to prove that he needed a gun to walk his dog — until Sunday, that is. By then, of course, it would have been too late.

To better understand the benefits of a “concealed carry” firearm, consider how the encounter between Wright and Colbert might have unfolded if Wright had been armed and followed a basic self-defense protocol:

According to police reports, Colbert comes out of his house with a knife in one hand and a stick in the other. Being alert to the approaching threat, an armed Wright would now have several options. He could pull his gun, say, a .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic, which speaks volumes without firing a shot: “Never bring a knife to a gunfight, pal.”

Or he could just wait until the assailant gets close enough to meet the legal definition of justifiable homicide. …

Say what you will about the perils of gun ownership, but nobody can doubt that Wright would be alive today if he’d had one.

Read the whole thing.   Related posts here, here, and here.

Check out the new Cato study on defensive gun use, Tough Targets.

Do Bring a Phonecam to a Snowball Fight

By now, you’ve probably heard the story—and seen the video.  During the weekend’s Snowpocalypse™ in DC, a gaggle of young urbanites, using Twitter and other social media, announced a big group snowball fight at the corner of 14th and U Streets.  For a while, it was all good fun, with the participants periodically stopping the skirmish to help dislodge a motorist for a snowdrift, amid collective cheers. But an off-duty plainclothes cop whose Hummer had been hit by a few snowballs lost his cool—and advanced on the crowd to berate them with his gun drawn. You’d think an angry, out-of-uniform guy brandishing a gun might set off a dangerous stampede in the snow, but true to form, the DC crowd responded with chanting: “You don’t bring a gun to a snowball fight!”

Initially, the Metropolitan Police Department “reviewed the evidence” and concluded that the officer had only been holding a cell phone after all—folks who’d said it was a gun must have just imagined it, what with all that snow. But it turns out there were a whole lot of video cameras and phonecams there, and still shots and recordings began to circulate on the Internet, making it impossible to deny what had happened.  By Monday, the chief of police had issued a statement calling the officer’s behavior “totally inappropriate” and announcing that he’d be relegated to desk duty pending further inquiry.

As anyone who follows the excellent work of my colleague Radley Balko will be well aware, things often play out quite differently—with departments circling the wagons, and no serious accountability for far more egregious abuses of authority. But video—increasingly ubiquitous and portable—can make a difference. And it strikes me that, in one sense, it helps remedy other kinds of social inequality.  Reviewing that video of the snowball scene, you might point out that the crowd is full of white 20-somethings, many of whom (given the city’s demographics) are almost certainly college-educated professionals, while police misconduct toward less privileged groups is far more likely to be ignored.

What is privilege, though? In cases like these, it consists largely in the ability to be seen and heard—to attract media attention, to articulate your story in a clear and compelling way, to be considered credible by press and the community. All of these, unfortunately, depend enormously on class, status, race, and education. Unless there’s video. And video is democratic these days. You’d have to poke around a bit to find even a bottom-of-the-line cheapo cell phone that didn’t come with at least a still camera, and likely video capture to boot. So while there’s been some attention paid to the potential of this kind of “Little Brother” surveillance to increase accountability—the to lessen disparity in power between citizen and cop—it’s also worth stressing the way it can lessen certain kinds of disparities between citizens.

That said, and just going by memory, it seems like most of the stories I encounter in this vein still involve white, middle-class, college-educated young people. One possibility is that this shows I’m wrong, and that other aspects of privilege still play into their videos circulating while others languish. Another, though, is just that they’re both accustomed to this kind of routine use of technology and sharing of data, and that they take their social power for granted. That is, it occurs more naturally to them that the right response to this kind of misbehavior is to record and circulate it. If it’s mostly the latter, we’re on an interesting precipice, where the main remaining precondition for the leveling effect to kick in is just awareness that the other preconditions are in place.  If that’s right, the next few years should be interesting.

DC Vouchers Solved? Generous Severance for Displaced Workers

Colbert King argues that DC should continue the opportunity scholarships private school choice program on its own dime, instead of complaining that Congress is killing it off. He starts off with a refreshing dose of realpolitik: “It should come as no surprise that Democratic congressional leaders are effectively killing the program. They, and their union allies, didn’t like it in the first place.” Too true. This is what disgusts many Americans about politics, but hey, that’s the reality.

But then he seems to descend into uncharacteristic naivete with this:

If the city likes vouchers so much, why shouldn’t the District bear the cost? The answer is as clear as it may be embarrassing to voucher proponents: D.C. lawmakers don’t want to ask their constituents to shoulder the program’s expense.

That is NOT the answer. DC lawmakers are familiar with DC’s budget. DC’s FY 2009 budget, as I show in this Excel spreadsheet file, allocated $28,170 per pupil for k-12 schooling. And the average voucher amount is not $7,500, as King claims. That’s the maximum. The average is $6,620 one quarter of what the district is spending on k-12 schooling. So operating the voucher program entirely out of the District of Columbia’s own budget would not cost a dime. And if expanded, it would save DC tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.

So DC lawmakers are most certainly NOT afraid of asking constituents to pay for it – it would more than pay for itself. What DC lawmakers must be afraid of is that DC schools have become a massive jobs program instead of an educational program. They must fear that if the voucher program were expanded it would put many non-teaching staff out of work – including perhaps some of their own supporters.

Well how about a realpolitik solution to that problem: offer displaced workers 18 months of severance pay at something like 75% of their current salary. That would give them plenty of time to find other work, and it could be paid for from the savings of students migrating from public schools to the voucher program. This would mean that taxpayers would not see savings in the first couple of years, but after that the District would be able to offer taxpayers generous tax cuts while also offering kids significantly better learning opportunities.

Surely the details of such a deal could be hammered out by experienced politicians and negotiators. Because, really, the status quo is insane. Why keep paying $28,000 for a worse education than the voucher program is providing for $6,600? That is sheer madness.

As The Dems Turn (To School Choice)

We’ve been writing a fair amount over the last several months about increasing support for school choice among members of the Democratic Party. The focus has typically been on legislators, but a new report from the Center for Education Reform give a glimpse into possible widespread support among private-schooling Dems and Dem donors in Washington, DC.

The Trustees delves into the political affiliations of board of trustee members of the “ten most prestigious private schools that support the  D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.” Based on trustees’ total donation amounts to the two major presidential candidates in 2008, or to candidates, party committees, and parties themselves, the report suggests that trustees lean Democratic by a ratio of roughly 9 to 1.

Importantly, only about 37 percent of trustees were found to have made any contributions, so the 9-to-1 ratio doesn’t necessarily mean that trustees overall are similarly skewed. In addition, the underlying assumption seems to be that if the schools participate in the voucher program their trustees support school choice, which doesn’t necessarily follow. A trustee may very well think a school should take some voucher kids but also think the program ought not to exist. And, of course, trustees almost certainly don’t all agree one way or the other.

Those things said, this is yet more evidence supporting an increasingly inescapable conclusion: Democrats – who have historically opposed school choice much more so than Republicans – are finding that they just can’t do it anymore. There is no justification for consigning kids to awful schools.

Of course, members of both parties – or no party at all – who support only small, hamstrung programs still have a lot of thinking to do

DC Residents Want Private School Choice

As Adam Schaeffer mentions below, a new poll commissioned by the Friedman Foundation and others reports that the vast majority of DC residents are in favor of the DC opportunity scholarships voucher program and are critical of the decision of congressional Democrats, President Obama, and ed. sec. Arne Duncan to phase out the program.

Many on the city council have already voiced their support for the program as well.

This begs a question: Why doesn’t the DC government just create its own private school choice program and save itself a boatload of money in the process?

DC spends about $28,000 per pupil on k-12 education right now. The federal vouchers, at an average of $6,600 each, are rather more cost effective, in addition to producing much better academic achievement after students have been in the program for a few years. 

So most folks in DC want it. It would save the city massive amounts of money. And it would do great things for kids.

What are the mayor and the city council waiting for?

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