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Letter to the Editor: Inept Regulation

To the Editor:

Ellen Latane Tabb’s letter [“Focus on Needs, Not Wants,” April 25] criticizes city hall for subsidizing BikeShare, a private membership bicycle rental company. She points out the inequity of the city investing in such a company whose eventual profits will accrue to its owners, not to taxpayers, and providing subsidized space on city streets for its BikeShare stations, particularly because other companies do not enjoy such benefits. But she fails to understand two factors:

  • Government subsidies to business are hardly new. After the American Civil War, the Congress gave huge land grants to build railroads to the West Coast — not just for the tracks’ rights-of-way, but developable land for miles on each side. More recently, the Export-Import Bank showers government money on a few favored domestic manufacturers and the Obama Administration’s quixotic “green energy” initiative heavily subsidized failed companies such as Solyndra.

  • The past several decades’ political realignment has done more than create coherently conservative and liberal political parties. Its political dynamic in a 50-50 electorate has created two diametrically different models for regulating business: One model, libertarian capitalism, expects the government to treat business evenhandedly with minimal regulation, while the other model, crony capitalism, expects business and government to work collaboratively. The first model, typically, although not always accurately, associated with Republicans, turns a deaf ear to citizens’ complaints about all but the most egregious business abuses. The second model, typically, although not exclusively, associated with Democrats, expects business to make political concessions to public demands and to receive special favors from the government such as city hall’s typical development special use permit. So, Alexandria’s former city council’s Democrat majority, over Republican objections, allowed dense waterfront development and repealed prior zoning, but insisted on developers providing “amenities” in exchange. Nearly every DSUP emanating from city hall waives rules designed to protect nearby residents or the general public in exchange for benefits developers “volunteer” (about as freely as folk give up their purse/wallet when a mugger pokes a gun in their faces) benefiting some segment of the public or fulfilling some broader planning goal. City hall’s hullaballoo over Walgreens moving to Del Ray has less to do with that neighborhood’s special privileges than with Walgreen’s insistence on adhering to the libertarian “by right” model and apparent unwillingness to offer city hall any amenities.

So too with BikeShare, a business providing a service fulfilling the public policy objective of making Old Town more accessible without increasing traffic. BikeShare provides a service city hall wants, but whose start-up costs, like 19th century railroads’, are too prohibitive. So, city hall subsidizes it to get it off the ground.

Unfortunately, city hall, despite its contrary rhetoric, has not done a good job rolling out BikeShare, precisely because the conditions it placed on BikeShare (providing bike stations in Old Town, far away from the nearest other BikeShare concentration in Crystal City) limits BikeShare’s effectiveness. Instead, city hall should have first established bike stations in Del Ray and Arlandria near Crystal City and gradually worked them toward Old Town. The problem is not that the city subsidizes desirable private businesses, but that it does so ineptly.

Dino Drudi

Alexandria