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Opinion Columns

Carman: Life is a highway, but the legislature keeps finding nothing but dead ends

It's time for Colorado to acknowledge the injustice on which its highway system was built and to compensate Black and brown communities impacted for decades

It’s at this point in every legislative session with the deadline for adjournment looming that you realize just how hard it is for human beings to make progress … in anything.

Pick a problem — educational opportunity, access to decent housing, affordable health care, criminal justice, systemic racism — the list goes on. If you listen to the debates long enough, you’ll feel that familiar frustration building in your chest as you see just how complicated, expensive and unfair all the obvious solutions are.

Which brings us to Senate Bill 260, also known, depending on your point of view, as either the ambitious long-overdue transportation bill to address our crumbling highway infrastructure or the monster that ate North Denver.

Diane Carman

The bill calls for raising $5.4 billion from the general fund as well as from a raft of increased fees on such things as gasoline purchases and electric vehicle registrations. The money will be spent on highways and bridges (38%), multi-modal transit options (9%), electric vehicle programs (14%), local projects (18%), air pollution mitigation (4%) and other stuff.

What the bill doesn’t include is a reckoning.

While it’s not enough to merely acknowledge the injustice on which the system was built, nothing can possibly change until we do. 

That means taking a hard look at the decisions made by the Greatest Generation in the post-World War II heyday of highway construction when they used noisy, polluting highways to isolate Black and brown neighborhoods. This was engineered in the wake of court rulings that outlawed the openly discriminatory zoning laws that had enforced segregation in cities all across the country up to that point. 

In other words, the Interstate Highway System picked up where Jim Crow left off.

It was no accident that back in 1956 when I-70 was built, it was routed through Denver to separate the Elyria, Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods from the white neighborhoods and business districts to the south. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

It was all part of a plan.

As a result, in the past 65 years the neighborhood, which remains as close-knit a community as it was before the highway was built, has suffered from the health impacts of air and noise pollution as well as severe economic impacts as local businesses and property values remained stubbornly moribund while the rest of the city boomed.

This is why SB-260 has generated such a backlash. 

The transportation bill addresses one problem — unsafe and inadequate transportation infrastructure — through a process that exacerbates another problem by reinforcing the legacy of deliberately inflicting the disproportionate impact of a filthy highway on Black and brown neighborhoods. 

It widens I-270, the offshoot of the despised I-70 abomination. It cements in concrete a bad idea from the past to persist in perpetuity.

So, what can be done?

Not much.

That’s not to say the sponsors of SB-260 were indifferent. They tried. Proof of their efforts is right there in the language of the bill.

A speedy transition to electric vehicles surely would go a long way toward reducing noise and air pollution — eventually. Expanded mass and multi-model transit might help some. Air-quality monitoring at least would reveal how toxic the environment is.

But if you live in North Denver, it all feels inadequate, insulting. 

And since, let’s face it, those highways are here to stay bearing witness to future generations to the racism on which they were constructed, maybe it’s time for all who profited from them for six and a half decades to shoulder some of the burden of what they’ve wrought.

So, let’s throw some ideas at the retaining walls and see what sticks.

For starters, I’m thinking free health care for everybody living with a half-mile of an interstate highway, compensation for the lost equity in the homes and businesses ruined by the traffic impacts, and out-and-out payments of redress.

Maybe an apology like that extended to the Americans of Japanese descent who were forced to give up their homes and businesses and held in concentration camps during World War II.

Expensive? Politically fraught? You bet. And it would still be small consolation for three generations of loss and suffering.

Face it, anything short of tearing the highways down will always be a compromise.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

But as messy and contentious as it is, this is what progress in a democratic society looks like. This is why a legislative session, no matter how productive, is always a disappointment.

So, as legislators stagger toward the finish line, here’s hoping they persevere, follow their best instincts, get something done and make plans for doing more next year.

The legislative fodder always tastes like weak gruel when you’re hungry for red meat, but this is how it’s done, how the arc of history bends toward justice. 


Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.


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