Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

My car is in the shop today, so naturally I’m thinking about transportation issues. Happily, the clever folks doing the news here at Colorado Politics supplied me with a couple of stories dealing with mass transit and our fair state.

Back when I was in grad school in Ann Arbor, I’d regularly ride my bike to campus, or take the public bus, because it was easier than trying to find a parking place. Fresh back at the Air Force Academy thereafter, I noticed that lots of my fellow professors lived on the grounds of the Academy, and we all drove pretty much from the same place to the same destination, about the same time each day. I started a carpool with a neighbor, but I also submitted a suggestion form to the base staff about creating a morning and afternoon shuttle bus from the family housing areas to the academic work area. At that time, and it may still be the case, if you submitted a suggestion that saved the AF money, you were entitled to a portion of the savings. I was already mentally spending that money when my suggestion form was returned to me with a discouraging word stamped on — Disapproved. In the reply, the suggestion people told me about their previous efforts to get people to take the bus, and how they started with a large bus, then a medium bus, then a small bus and ended up with a minivan by the time the program was cancelled due to lack of interest. Hm…

I was reminded of my suggestion failure when I read a Colorado Politics piece on the Denver City Council’s vote to authorize roughly $93 million on a plan to widen Peña Boulevard by adding more lanes and make it easier to get to and from DIA. The other story that caught my eye was report from the Gazette about a proposal to link everything between Cheyenne and Pueblo (with a spur off to Vale) by hyperloop trains zooming across the countryside at several hundred miles per hour. I’m a sucker for technology — if it blinks or beeps or it has buttons and switches there’s a good chance I either have one or want one. For the hyperloop, I’d have to settle for riding it.

All these proposals are about one common concern — transportation in the Centennial State. Gov. Polis has been aggressive on transportation issues, and his Department of Transportation is setting up a series of meetings to re-examine our transportation plans, which just might, if we are lucky, include the hyperloop.

In the meantime, adding more lanes to roadways seems to be the usual way to deal with too many cars on the roads. If you drive north from Colorado Springs you will soon find the major construction project to convert the last few miles of freeway between Denver and the Springs to three full lanes each way, rather than the current "pinch" down to two lanes for a chunk between Castle Rock and the Springs. Widening Peña (the road, not the man) also seems like a good idea, but I can’t help but think that we are doing what the military has often been criticized for — refighting the last war, rather than adapting to new challenges. While you can add more and more lanes, such as the Beltway in the Washington, D.C. area, it may not be the best long-term solution. (If you’ve lived or visited there, you probably found yourself in lane 7 of the 12 lanes, and likely was not quite sure which lane is the best one for your travel plans. I avoided the Beltway whenever I could). 

Back in the olden days, in Paris, Benjamin Franklin was at the launch of an early hot air balloon. As it rose, the story goes, Dr. Franklin was asked of what possible use such a balloon could be. He replied, “of what possible use is a new-born baby?” Perhaps the hyperloop is the new-born baby of the 21st century for travel, and perhaps it is not. But we in Colorado must think well outside of the traditional transportation paradigm.

One test will be if, say, our governor and our state legislators support an expensive and challenging plan (like a hyperloop) that won’t be finished until they have long been out of office. Traditionally, the “deliverables” an elected official likes best are the ones that he or she can quickly take credit for when they help mitigate the human condition. Most visionary transportation ideas are, I fret, too time-consuming to be good politics. Add more lanes and take credit in the next election, but add a hyperloop, and don’t get thanked, if at all, until the next generation. 

Do we have such leaders? Fingers crossed!

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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