Guest Columns


Colorado’s taste of Arab Spring organizing remains more than a little bit troubling

The Colorado Statesman

There was considerable smug self-congratulation reported by the commentariat during the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East as organizers relying on social media and the Internet turned out first thousands and then tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere across Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Geeks and politicos found it just the most wonderful thing imaginable that democratic aspirations were flowering with an assist from broadband technology. Really, how very, very clever of us! Since the collapse of Egypt’s dalliance with digital democracy and the widening carnage in Syria, this flowering of people power has begun to function more like a fuse than a fertilizer.

Angry, disgruntled, suspicious? It appears gasoline can be splashed on your fire with 104 characters or less. The traditional portrayal of the political spectrum, running from left to right has been reconfigured in recent years as more of a political compass or circle — one where the uber-libertarian right and the paranoid left find more in common with one another, back somewhere in the nether regions of anarchy, than they do with the political center. Both the Tea Party and our 99 percent activists share a bone-deep mistrust of government, of politicians and any other institution too large to meet in a fair trade coffee shop or McDonald’s. This alliance was confirmed at last week’s public meetings in Westminster and Louisville protesting The Colorado Department of Transportation proposed public-private partnership with Plenary Roads Denver to complete the busway and HOV lanes along U.S. 36 into Boulder.

Who were these irate citizens and where did they come from? You can thank the reach of social media and a subsequent cascading avalanche of shrill notices, which alleged the sale of a public highway to a private entity. A spooky outfit called the High Performance Transportation Enterprise was allegedly cutting a secret deal with foreigners to collect confiscatory tolls from Colorado commuters. What probably sounded implausible to many in the middle was embraced as gospel by others, who swiftly sounded their alarm through the conspiracy grapevine. The 300 to 400 in Westminster on Wednesday grew to 500 to 600 on Thursday in Louisville. CDOT’s attempt to explain that its proposal to accelerate completion of the U.S. 36 Bus Rapid Transit and HOV project had involved more than 60 public meetings during the past two years fell on deaf ears. Typical was the spittle-flecked demand from a gray haired grandmother who wanted to know, “Just tell us who knew about this, so we know who we have to recall.”

I found myself situated between a morbidly obese Tea Party zealot and a Paul Bunyan costumed radical who both seemed to think it was appropriate to bellow their concerns as others tried to speak. The plaid flannel-wrapped leftist kept loudly reminding everyone that, “Goldman Sachs is a criminal enterprise,” while his conservative compatriot complained, “I don’t want my taxes going to Australia!” It was nearly impossible to communicate the fact that the PPP represented the conclusion of a multi-year public process that had earned support from most locally elected officials along the corridor. If CDOT learned anything it should be that they can’t rely on local politicians to inform voters about what they are doing. Typical was Westminster Mayor Herb Atchison, resplendent in cowboy hat and jeans, who remained mute at the back of the room as he watched the public meeting grow increasingly raucous. The following day he would testify before the Joint Transportation Legislative Review Committee in his Sunday best suit and tie about his long involvement with and support for the HPTE.

These belligerent crowds had the feel of lynch mobs, spouting accusations that, “You’re hiding something,” and “We’re being sold out by bureaucrats!” When CDOT Communications Director Amy Ford pointed out in Westminster that there are only two ways to pay for highway capacity, taxes or tolls, the crowd expressed a desire to pay our own way. She then asked for a show of hands to determine how many would support higher taxes to fund Colorado’s highway construction program. Fully 90 percent raised their arms, but it appeared doubtful many had arrived with this opinion. Nonetheless, their response provided a small glimmer of hope that voters might be persuaded to pay for the services they need and want when forced to confront the alternatives. Ford asked them where they had been earlier this year when voters were polled about their support for higher taxes? (A question that seemingly answers itself. With adequate revenues the HPTE wouldn’t be considering PPPs.)

I’ve been puzzled for some time by the readiness of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and associated conservative PACs to throw money at the Tea Party. These anti-tax, anti-establishment extremists don’t like or trust big business any more than they do big government. My corpulent companion answered the tax question with another shout out, “Make these cheating corporations pay their taxes. They’ve got all our money.” Still others suggested using the yet to be collected marijuana taxes to pay for roads. Watching the extreme right join arms with the far left in a chorus of hatred for government made the hair rise on the back of my neck. Whether you fear our politicians are corruptly funneling tax dollars to their buddies or simply think that idiots and incompetents are wasting money by the bucketful — it’s pretty damned scary to share a room with Americans who no longer have any faith in democracy or its capacity to govern in the public interest. What half-baked Twitter alarm might turn them out next week, or the week after?

This time social media provided the spark that ignited a prairie fire of ungrounded accusations, misrepresentation of motives, general purpose ignorance and out of control behavior. In a state that has repeatedly fallen victim to wildfires, our political leaders should appreciate the importance of establishing a defensible perimeter around public policy. The tar-and-feathers crowd constitutes the underbrush in our system — untended kindling, quick to explode beneath the hot breath of demagogues. Sadly, it appears we have plenty of both.

Update: During an otherwise peaceful public hearing Wednesday afternoon, where supporters outnumbered opponents, the State Patrol escorted four protestors from the CDOT auditorium. Subsequently, the HPTE Board unanimously approved the U.S. 36 PPP contracts with Plenary Roads.

Columnist Miller Hudson was, from 1998-2003, the executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority, which studied the feasibility of a monorail for Interstate 70 between Denver International Airport and Colorado mountain resorts.