Reminiscing with my old pal and fellow Colorado native Robert some time ago, we agreed that our beloved state’s best days had long passed.
“It was around 1960,” Robert recalled. “The population was a little over a million and a half, the roads were never crowded, the mountains weren’t overrun by peak baggers, fishing was great, living was cheap — it was great!”
I didn’t point out the obvious: We were young.
Every generation mourns what’s lost and minimizes what’s gained, and ours is no exception. Yet as those of us who experienced a less crowded, less stressful and less endangered Colorado grow fewer, there’s still time to fight for what we took for granted six decades ago.
Public and private policy in Colorado Springs and statewide can be summarized in one enduring principle: Economic growth is good. Absent growth, we have job loss, stagnation, and population loss as young folks leave for greener pastures. Businesses close, home-building slows to almost nothing and tax revenues fall sharply. Governments can no longer deliver vital services, crime and family dysfunction increase, and cities literally fall to pieces.
We saw that during the Great Recession. Remember when the city turned off streetlights, stopped watering the parks and let potholes multiply like mosquitoes during a wet summer? We don’t want a repeat.
The problems of growth should be far easier to deal with than those of stagnation. Yet a booming city and state create policy dilemmas that are more complex and more expensive to solve than those of a short-term recession.
Consider the I-25 gap. When construction is finished, it’ll have taken almost four years and $350 million to add two lanes to the 18-mile segment from south of Castle Rock to Monument. That’s about $10 million per lane mile — but don’t think you can avoid congestion!
As CDOT cheerily informs us, “Drivers will have the choice to use the Express Lane for a reliable trip in exchange for a toll, or to use one of the two general-purpose lanes for free.”
In retrospect, we should have widened I-25 a generation ago. It would have been comparatively inexpensive and easily accomplished — if only the policymakers of that time had been a little more visionary.
As one of those policymakers, I plead guilty. The issues of the moment and voter-approved tax and spending limitations distracted us. Our planning horizon was mostly month-to-month and year-to-year. In most local governments, game-changers like the Trails, Open Space and Parks tax and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority come about once a decade, and then only to remedy glaring and immediate problems.
Yet one branch of local government does an extraordinary job of both delivering high quality service and planning for the distant future. That’s Colorado Springs Utilities, with a planning horizon of multiple decades and a 10-figure investment since 2005 in future water and energy supplies. CSU’s model could be applied to a statewide transportation authority, run by an elected non-partisan board.
Properly constituted, the authority could move forward with stalled projects such as Front Range passenger rail, I-70 reconstruction and the long-term rebuilding of our highway system.
If lawmakers and voters from 1960 to 2000 had thought more about generations to come, would have they done anything differently? Maybe. But we did our best, perhaps guided by Matthew 6:34 — “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Can today’s voters and elected officials do any better? Given a new Transportation Authority unburdened by the so-called Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, sure.
After decades of TABOR-enabled infrastructure underfunding and deferred maintenance, local voters elected John Suthers and figured out that they couldn’t have both low taxes and adequate public infrastructure.
Colorado Springs voters stuck Colorado with TABOR in 1992, but it’s time for us to bail out the state and start over. Think of Gen. William Palmer, who bought 9,312.27 acres (including the Colorado Springs townsite) from the Feds for 80 cents an acre and multiplied its value twentyfold by building the D&RG line from Denver to the Springs.
Funding transportation for the future won’t make us as rich as Palmer, but it’ll make life far more pleasant for those who follow us. Honoring the General’s prescience, we might call it the Palmer Transportation Authority.
The PTA — who’d vote against it?