By Maria Saporta
Washington, D.C. — The nation’s capital is enjoying a burst of population growth, Mayor Vincent Gray told the metro Atlanta LINK delegation Wednesday evening.
Gray welcomed Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and about 100 other civic leaders at dinner held at the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
After losing population for several decades, Washington, D.C. added 30,000 residents between 2000 and 2010. But in just the past 18 months, the city has gained an additional 17,000 residents and now has a population of 618,000.
“In the next decade, we could have a population of 725,000 to 800,000,” Gray said. “It’s a vibrant, growing city.”
Gray has been mayor since January 2011, and he said he has four main goals.
First, he wanted the city to be on sound financial footing. So after some painful cuts and reorganization, Gray said the city now has reserves of $240 million.
Atlanta Mayor Reed jokingly said not to report that number. Although Atlanta, a city of about 500,000 people, has significantly grown its reserves in the past several years, Reed is still shooting to get to at least $100 million.
The second goal for Gray has been to improve the public school system in Washington, D.C., which is under the city’s jurisdiction. Of the 76,000 students in the District of Columbia’s public schools, 45,000 are in traditional schools while 31,000 are in charter schools — and he expects that number to grow.
“I have welcomed that because it has created choices and a competitive environment,” Gray said. But only 53 percent of the students are completing high school.
To turn that around, Gray said he would like to extend the school day beyond 3 p.m., and he would like to extend the school year as a way to help turn the public education system around.
“The educational outcomes we have had in the city have been pretty miserable,” Gray said.
The other key area is his desire to increase the employment opportunities in the city. The city’s unemployment rate when Gray came into office was 11.2 percent.
“Atlanta is where we got the idea,” Gray said referring to the Hire One program that was a joint effort between the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Business Chronicle to encourage companies to hire one more full-time person. “We call our program — One City, One Hire. We have gotten 2,500 people back to work” in the past several months.
The fourth priority for Gray is public safety. Last year, the city had the lowest number of homicides — 108 — in 48 years. “Our goal is to get below 100,” Gray said.
The mayor then told the Atlanta delegation of the peculiar relationship that Washington, D.C. has with the federal government. Acknowledging that slavery ended in Washington, D.C. 150 years ago, Gray said the city still is not free.
“Every one of our laws in the District of Columbia has to go to Congress to be approved,” Gray said, adding that just to change the term “handicapped” to “disabled” took nine months to get through Congress. “This is a city that is not yet free.”
Asked about how Washington, D.C. had continued to invest in its transit system — Metro, Gray said that today it “really is a regional system.”
Now the city is focused on developing streetcar lines — restoring a service that had been eliminated 50 years ago.
“We have made a commitment to bring streetcars back to D.C.,” he said. “We have plans for a $1.5 billion system that will take us 20 years to install. We will open our first line in 2013.”
Gray added that he expects the city’s investment in streetcars to result in billions of dollars in new economic development as it has in other cities with modern streetcars such as Portland.
“We are looking at some creative ways to finance it,” Gray said, adding that he has met with officials from the Export-Import Bank in China to talk to them about “the possibility to invest in our streetcar system” as they have in other parts of the world.
The City of Atlanta also has started to bring back the streetcar. Currently a line is under construction that will connect Centennial Olympic Park with the King Center on Auburn and Edgewood avenues.
And if the regional transportation sales tax passes on July 31, several other streetcar lines could be built in Atlanta.