Infrastructure, Economic Diversification Are Priorities for D.C. Region Leaders

President Steven Knapp moderates discussion among area’s top three elected officials.

Image of GW President Steven Knapp, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
From left: George Washington President Steven Knapp, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. The elected officials were friendly but firm about contributions to the shared economy. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
October 17, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

George Washington University President Steven Knapp moderated a frank, sometimes contentious discussion among D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan at last Wednesday’s Capital Region Business Forum.

Introducing the panel, U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) praised GW’s investments in partnerships, facilities and research under Dr. Knapp’s leadership, calling him “a world-class leader in this region.”

“Your service in the presidency of one of the great universities in this ‘college town’ will be memorable to the District of Columbia, to the region and to higher education,” she said.

The economic strength of the D.C. metropolitan region is sometimes “underestimated,” Dr. Knapp said. The capital and its surrounding counties and independent cities constitute the seventh-largest service economy in the world, falling behind Seoul-Incheon and ahead of Beijing, Chicago and Moscow.

The three elected officials agreed that cooperation and economic integration has contributed to that strength. They cited joint trips to Cuba and Israel in which the region has presented a united front to stimulate international trade.

“There are really no borders, [though] we all have a responsibility to create jobs in our jurisdictions,” Mr. McAuliffe said.

But economic diversification needs to be a priority, they said, and D.C. cannot continue to be as dependent on federal spending as it has been.

Ms. Bowser said D.C. has been developing its niche in technology, particularly what she called “inclusive tech,” as the dominant employment model moves from stable companies to individuals.

“Underrepresented entrepreneurs can find a place and grow and be nurtured in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

In Maryland, Mr. Hogan said, community colleges are partnering with private companies to improve skills-based education.

“The number one issue we face is people with weaker job skills,” he said.

Ms. Bowser said she was committed to ending homelessness and building affordable housing in the District, but the three agreed that the cost of living in the area has been and will remain high.

“People want to be here,” Mr. Hogan said. “It’s not just something we can make go away.”

For any initiative toward economic diversification to be effective, all three agreed that the area’s infrastructure needs strengthening.

“If we’re going to be able to be competitive, we have to be able to move people, goods, services,” Ms. Bowser said. “Gridlock does not help us attract business…and it has a real economic impact. It costs us.”

Mr. Hogan and Mr. McAuliffe wrangled briefly over the issue of a new bridge across the Potomac River. The river falls within the boundaries of Maryland, so bridges spanning it are Maryland’s sole responsibility, Mr. McAuliffe said.

“If I was governor of Maryland I’d build that bridge tomorrow,” Mr. McAuliffe said.

Existing infrastructure also needs improvement. The Arlington Memorial Bridge between the District and Virginia is “about to fall into the Potomac,” Ms. Bowser said.

And the struggling Metro transit system also needs help. Ms. Bowser said the federal government needs to pay more, since 40 percent of federal workers use the Metro daily. Mr. Hogan and Mr. McAuliffe lauded the work of Metro’s new leadership team but indicated an unwillingness to increase funding from their states until system officials can show improvement.

“It’s got to be safe, and it’s got to be reliable,” Mr. McAuliffe said.

Mr. Hogan noted that many of Metro’s safety and performance problems existed well before any of them were elected to lead their jurisdictions. “What won’t change is that Metro needs to make investments, and we need to come up with a way to pay for it,” he said.

Dr. Knapp’s final question was simple: What advice would the three give to the next president of the United States?

Mr. Hogan urged the new administration to “put aside partisanship” and work toward bipartisan solutions to the problems facing the nation.

Mr. McAuliffe said the president should work with Congress to quickly develop a budget in order to avoid federal sequestration. “The sequestration trigger will have the most devastating impact in D.C., Maryland and Virginia,” he said.

Ms. Bowser, a Democrat like Mr. McAuliffe, didn’t hesitate to make a partisan point.

“I think she should support statehood for our city,” Ms. Bowser said with emphasis, prompting laughter and applause from a significant portion of the crowd. “I think that’s something that’s important for her to do.”