Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Growth was a big problem in Colorado’s early days. There wasn’t enough of it. With a non-Indian population of 34,277, Colorado was virtually a ghost-state in 1860.The Oregon and Sante Fe Trails bypassed Colorado, in order to avoid the state’s formidable mountains. Boom and bust cycles coupled with steady growth yielded a 1950 population of 1,325,271. As the Colorado legislature begins work on growth control, it’s important to understand some basic facts about Colorado’s cycles of population growth.

Many factors influence people to immigrate. The predominant factor seems to be economic opportunity. Colorado has experienced five easily discernable cycles since 1950 with peaks in 1956, 1961, 1973, 1978, and 1993. Ex-migration peaked in the cycle troths in 1951, 1958, 1965, 1975, and 1988. The most severe down-cycle was the most recent when more people left than came for five consecutive years:1986-1990. Because 1990 was the last year of a five year out-migration, comparing the 1990 population to the 2000 population artificially exaggerates Colorado’s long term growth.

The current up-cycle peaked in 1993 at 3.1% and has declined steadily. Immigration of 77,397 in 1993 was surpassed only in 1973. Growth at 1.8% in 2000 was down from 1.9% in 1999 and 2.0% in 1998.

Natural population growth is consistent. Births increase population 1.6% per year. Deaths decrease it 0.8%.

The movement of Americans departing Northeastern for Southwestern states has resulted in the Mountain Time Zone now accounting for 5.75% of the U.S. population.

Past efforts to attenuate cycle extremes seem to have made things worse. Distressed at the duration of the last down-cycle, politicians advocated that Stapleton International Airport be replaced. Less costly alternatives were rejected. Spending billions for a new airport would reinvigorate the stagnant economy. But the economy had bottomed in 1988 and construction did not commence until 1992. If political meddling had an economic effect, it augmented growth at the wrong time.

A large amount of jargon has evolved that plays upon passions without committing to firm definitions or accompanying hard facts. Smart growth, like the word beauty, presumes that someone has quantified it and all agree. Buzz words like “sprawl,” “sustainable transportation,” and “naturally productive land also demand objective scrutiny.

Interestingly, one of the most serious side-effects, traffic congestion, has been worsened by those complaining most. While providing a small benefit for government transit, high-density development increases congestion, travel times, and pollution, while reducing mobility and the quality of life. The problems of high-density growth are worse than those of low-density growth.

Coloradans deserve to know that command and control extremists have captured government institutions. Because over 60% of metro area transportation funds over the next 20 years will be wasted on government transit, severe traffic congestion will nearly double.

Growth should pay its own way is a worthy ideal. Yet the problems of assessing impact fees properly are very substantial. A 1998 Colorado Municipal League survey reported on 168 cities. Nearly 5% had no fees. The highest total fees are $20,000 for a $100,000 home. That same city had no fees in eight of twelve categories. Developments typically bear costs for constructing adjacent streets. Only 10% of development fees acknowledge that existing major streets must be widened and traffic signals upgraded.

Perhaps the largest unacknowledged impact is schools. Every 2,000 homes fills an elementary school. Who rightfully should pay for the school?  Allocated to the new homes, each would pay $5,000, plus another $5,000 for high schools.

Once collected, impact fees are frequently treated as general revenues. Thus, their purpose is subverted unless protected by complex rules.

However, paying its own way, begs a basic question about central control. No one, in spite of the monumental suffering by former socialist citizens, is advocating another try at Communism. Yet, Americans seem paralyzed to confront the failure of central control. The predictable message from failing central control systems is just a little more central control should do the trick. If we know that more central control reduces service and increase costs, then it should be obvious that the search for workable solutions must be in the direction of less central control.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, http://i2i.org.

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