I’m glad that the football star Peyton Manning stood up last week and encouraged Coloradans to donate money to assist the victims of our latest series of disasters.
Seeing those burly Broncos answering phones was heartwarming. I’m proud that people are giving their hard-earned money and even some harder-earned time to help out. The Denver news stations boasted that the telethon raised more than $1 million in less than five hours. Help even came in an unexpected form from pot activists who handed out free joints for flood victims in Boulder. Organizer Miguel Lopez promised that “tax-free marijuana will bring joy, relief and sunshine” to beleaguered victims.
These generous acts make us feel like we’re doing something. The money raised will help people in immediate need of clothing, food and shelter. But it won’t bring lasting relief, and it won’t repair the destruction.
None of it will fix even one mile of mountain highway or one bridge. Infrastructure — the catchall word for roads and bridges and sewer lines and dams and water pipes — is fantastically expensive. The Broncos could do million-dollar telethons daily for the next three years and still not raise enough money.
We have to get serious about the scale of the disasters that have befallen us, and we need to understand the kind of assistance we need. The thousands of miles of ripped-up roads, irrigation canals, sewer and gas lines, and the hundreds of bridges wiped out by a week’s worth of flooding will cost billions. The floodwaters weren’t choosy, washing away expensive homes as well as trailer parks, destroying businesses, farms and gardens belonging to hundreds of Boulderites, Nederlanders and Lovelanders.
We need federal help. We need our senators, congressmen and well-connected businesspeople to work together to get funding from Washington to begin fixing or replacing what’s broken or washed away.
This might challenge politicians such as Republican Rep. Doug Sanborn, who represents the famously anti-tax city of Colorado Springs. He voted against supporting federal relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and he voted to take food stamps away from hungry children; federal help, he said, would keep people from becoming self-sufficient. I’m guessing, however, that he, like other conservative congressmen, will change his tune when it comes to his home state.
We now know — if somehow we failed to get it before — that we live in a place that can’t be sustained by individuals alone. We have never actually paid our own bills. The roads and bridges that take us through our beautiful mountains, and the systems that carry water to fill our water bottles and irrigate our farms and ranches, were built during two great waves of federally funded projects. We have always been in this together.
In the 1930s, enormous federal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration brought us dollars and workers, who built the sweeping roads that cross the Continental Divide and the graceful bridges that span chasms in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A few decades later, we reaped the benefit of two even more expensive public works projects. The first, the Federal Highway Act, was passed and funded by a Republican Congress in 1956, and ended up costing $425 billion — or the equivalent of 1,164 years of daily Broncos telethons. The most expensive miles were built to pass through Colorado’s rugged mountains.
The 1956 Colorado River Storage Project re-engineered rivers and built tremendous dams so that the Front Range cities of Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins could have water and power. The project also enabled Palisade near Grand Junction to grow peaches, and Summit County to turn snow into ski-dollars. The project cost upwards of $2 trillion dollars — more telethons than you can imagine.
Coloradans need to recognize how much of our good life has been subsidized by the generosity of taxpayers living elsewhere. It is not to our credit that we haven’t taken care of the infrastructure that the citizens of the United States helped build for us.
Poorly maintained roads, bridges, and gas and oil lines were in dangerous disrepair even before this series of floods because we weren’t willing to pay the taxes to enable even basic maintenance. Instead, we’ve cut budgets for roads, drainage systems and maintenance crews, which made the floods worse.
I’m hoping the rest of the nation will come to our aid. But I’m also hoping that we will begin to take more responsibility as Colorado residents and taxpayers.
Anne Hyde is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a professor of history at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.