Over the last 4 or 5 years, Washington has seen something of a renaissance. Property values are way up, crime -- especially murder -- is way down, and the city's budget is in the black. This is in part due to to the steady, practical leadership of the city's mayor, Tony Williams. There also were some lucky breaks of which the mayor took full advantage. For instance, the metrorail (subway) system -- conceived and started in the late 1960s -- finished construction in 2001 and is now successfully anchoring the metro area to downtown. However, with this success for metrorail comes growing pains and challenges, and is putting me in a mood for spending large sums on infrastructure projects.
By way of background, about 5 million people live in the Washington metro area. In the last 30 years or so, the metro area has doubled in population. This population growth has happened entirely in the suburbs. Indeed, over that time period, the number of people living in the city of Washington has decreased by about 20% and now numbers only 580,000. The race riots of the 60s, high crime, and the construction of freeways to the suburbs, among other factors, led to low property values and white and black flight from the city.
Even as the population of the city shrank, the commercial and government business in the city grew in step with the population of the suburbs. Nowadays, about 500,000 people commute into the city for work and over 70% of all income in the city is earned by commuters from the suburbs. Downtown D.C. north of the National Mall -- from Georgetown to Union Station -- is almost completely filled in with high quality office buildings. From an overall perspective, the mix of residences and business in the city has shifted greatly toward business. Judging by the city government coffers, the current mix is profitable.
Part of this profitability is due to the fact that it is becoming increasingly troublesome to commute into the city. The bridges and freeways into the city are all stop-and-go during rush hour and any growth in commuting into the city by car just makes the trips of everyone longer. This phenomenon is illustrated by a nice Washington Post article of earlier this year. It is becoming desireable to live in the city to avoid this commute, which helps to drive up home prices. Because of this dynamic, for the city government, it does not always pay to make it easier to commute into the city.
Despite this tension, I think that it would be much better for the city to facilitate the commute, if it is able to channel this growth to the city's benefit and to gain services for the residents of the city by doing so. The residents of D.C. have no need for more freeways, but expanding metrorail as much as possible in the city would be awfully handy.