We can’t study with all that yelling!

On April 5 the federal National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) announced the results of a lengthy study into the feasibility of alternate routes for hazardous rail cargo passing through Washington. Three TV news crews and a small gaggle of reporters gathered at the commission’s swank downtown digs for a PowerPoint presentation by project officer David Zaidain. Standing at a podium in a darkened room, Zaidain announced that after nine months of study, the NCPC had indeed made a momentous determination:

“All options we see as feasible and warranting further study.”

But The Washington Post, which had already obtained a draft of the report through reportorial sleuth, took the liberty of conducting its own study of the political feasibility of re-routing hazardous trains through Maryland, and printed the results before the presentation that very morning. The conclusion of the Post’s study: Not feasible.

“What their proposal does is to take what they consider to be dangerous cargo and the risk of a terrorist attack and shift it to Maryland,” said Murray Levy, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

“The bottom line is that alternatives identified in this study impose unacceptable impacts on Maryland,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari.

“I would be strongly opposed to any plan that would only shift the potential risk to other parts of the region,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D), whose Maryland district would be affected.

“This is about making Prince George’s County a dumping ground, and we’re not interested in playing on those set of rules,” said Michael Herman, chief of staff to County Executive Jack Johnson.

At NCPC headquarters, Planning Director William Dowd told reporters that the commission had briefed Maryland officials on the study in the previous few days. Apparently, those officials then tapped Philip Rucker, Maryland beat reporter for the Post, and found in him a handy megaphone for their municipal beef.

Never mind that the two options that would re-route trains through Maryland would result in over $1 billion in increased value of the regional transportation network, according to the study. (It also estimates that eliminating tracks through the city will enhance District real estate to more than $6 billion.)

Zaidain acknowledged that the safety benefit of preventing thousands of deaths from a chlorine tanker exploding in the District is difficult to quantify. But surely for future cost-benefit analyses, the NCPC will take into account the value of political grandstanding against freight rail in the neighborhood: It’s priceless.


K Street on Capitol Hill


Can a national lobbying organization withstand pressure from the least-mighty of all District government agencies, the all-but-powerless Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC)?

Judging from recent events on 5th Street N.E., the answer is no, and it doesn’t want to try.

The April issue of the Hill Rag reported that the ANC for Northeast Capitol Hill, after receiving some complaints from neighbors, alerted zoning inspectors to what appeared to be a business improperly running out of a residentially zoned property.

That business was the Potomac Advocates, a consulting firm that, among other activities, lobbies against the closure of military bases. As soon as Potomac Advocates learned from a zoning administrator that questions had been raised about code compliance, the organization packed up and fled to a different office nearby.

“We’re not trying to single out lobbyists,” says ANC commissioner Ryan Velasco. “I’m frankly surprised they vacated so quietly and without complaint.”

“Somebody made a mountain out of a molehill,” says the Potomac Advocates’ John Nichols, who reports that he and other partners in the organization own the townhouse and that a person lives in the basement. He says a representative from the Zoning Commission told the group that it did not necessarily have to leave — it could stay pending receipt of a proper occupancy permit, and there was some uncertainty over whether summer interns counted as employees. But the group thought it would be wise to relocate anyway, rather than stir up trouble with the locals.

“We don’t want to make anybody unhappy,” Nichols says.

Led by Velasco, the ANC has sent a letter to the Zoning Commission asking for investigations into some other properties of concern, specifically a row of three lobbying groups on 2nd Street N.E., right behind the Supreme Court: Faith in Action, the National Center for State Courts, and the National Pro-Life Action Center. Velasco says the ANC is merely asking for zoning-code wonks to look into things — they’re not lodging a complaint against any of the organizations.

“It’s not a witch hunt or anything,” Velasco says. But — pure speculation here — one can’t help but wonder if the rightish politics of these groups makes them savory targets for the generally leftish Hill community. The Faith in Action folks are no strangers to local controversy; last year the District threatened to fine them $300 a day for their granite statue of the Ten Commandments, but eventually relented and let the monument stay. (Supporters pointed out that dozens and dozens of Hill homes sport hideous works of art in their yards, so why should the graven tablet be treated differently?)

For all the talk about being good neighbors and the importance of maintaining a proper residential character, ANC folks never introduced themselves to the lobbyists. HillScape knocked on their doors on Good Friday, but nobody was home. 


The nuisance patrol  prevails once again


Just in time for Easter, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells has introduced legislation on behalf of Northeast residents plagued by open-air megaphone preaching. For the past several years the Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge has tormented serenity-loving neighbors around H and 8th streets N.E. The holy messages, delivered by fellows in combat boots, have generally concerned AIDS being a scourge for the evil gays and occasionally encouraged the killing of white people. Wells’s legislation will forbid non-commercial public speech above 70 decibels as measured from a distance of 50 feet.


Stabbing Bandit on the loose


On April 4 D.C. police posted an utterly disturbing violent crime alert on their website. An excerpt:

“The first offense occurred in the vicinity of 7th and E Streets, S.E. at about 6:45 am on Friday, March 30, 2007. A male complainant was walking near the Washington Navy Yard when he observed a male dancing in the street. He walked by the dancer and then felt pain in his neck and back. The victim then realized that he’d been stabbed three times by the suspect.”

The following Wednesday morning this happened again, to a woman walking on D Street S.E. Neither of the two victims was critically injured, but good grief. I beseech you, fellow Hill residents: Beware the Dancing Man.