John Colson: Comparing notes, Colorado versus Washington |

John Colson: Comparing notes, Colorado versus Washington

John Colson
Fair Game

Just in case readers (presumptive of me, I know, to imagine them in the plural) were wondering, I’m returning to these pages after a well-appreciated month off, which I spent engaged in a combination of blithe ignorance of current affairs (I was helping a friend work on his newly purchased, very small house in the woods of the San Juan Islands, and cut off from most modern forms of communication) and serious contemplation of my future as a writer and commentator on those same current affairs that I was happily ignoring.

As often happens when I visit a place for the first time (the San Juan Islands, I mean), I was at first struck by certain similarities with the place I’ve called home for nearly 40 years, the central Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Oh, there are obvious and inescapable differences, starting with altitude and atmospherics.

I was staying in a small cabin perched on tiny Shaw Island, at about 200 feet above sea level, versus more than 6,000 feet here in the Roaring Fork Valley. And given the fact that Shaw Island is drippingly close to being a tropical rainforest, thanks to the warming influence of Pacific Ocean currents and related atmospherics, the continual damp feeling in the woods is vastly unlike the high and dry feeling one gets when hiking our local mountains.

The ubiquitous presence of dust in our mountain air here, for example, is replaced on Shaw by a general, hazy humidity that generates moss and fungus everywhere and maintains a hazardous slipperiness on every surface, from rocky paths to wooden walkways, all year and everywhere.

The similarities, though, are on a more human than ecological plane — the San Juans are in the midst of an Aspenization, as I like to call it, as does my buddy, Matt, on whose old-new house I was working. Matt, an erstwhile denizen of the Roaring Fork Valley who is relocating to the San Juans, actually calls the region “Aspen on the Sea.”

The reason, as some undoubtedly already know, is that members of the uber-wealthy class of the U.S. economy have been working hard to turn the San Juan Islands into their latest fiefdom, buying up small, modest homes and cabins and then tearing them down to build mansions in their place. The resulting stratospheric rise in real estate values has, of course, priced out many of those who actually work at jobs on the islands, just as has happened here in central Colorado.

At the same time, these socio-economic shifts have spawned increased traffic congestion, putting immense pressures on the ferry system that serves as the islands’ most important link to each other and to the mainland of the state of Washington, which operates the ferries.

And therein lies another complicated blending of similarity and difference — the manner in which the state government approaches its obligations to help people travel between outposts of relative civilization in the island group.

In the time I was there, I was unable to do any checking on the cost of operating the ferries linking the island group to Anacortes, a town located at the tip of Fidalgo Island, where the “island” label is enabled by a pretty narrow channel of water at Fidalgo’s eastern boundary. I did learn, though, that the Washington State Ferries system recently decided against outsourcing construction of the ferries to shipyards out of state, which could have saved as much as $10 million in costs per ferry but would have put a serious crimp in the local shipyard industry, costs hundreds of local jobs and meant a loss of consumer spending power that was estimated to be as much as six times the amount saved in ferry construction.

The state, after meeting with a group called the Ferry Community Partnership, killed the outsourcing plan.

Here in Colorado, state and local governments have talked endlessly about establishing commuter rail services among the cities on the Front Range and between the Front Range and the Western Slope (over and above the Amtrak train schedule and the Bustang coach route), but little has been done to move beyond the talking stage at this point.

If you think of the towns around Colorado and the Western Slope as islands of a sort, it’s kind of fun to compare the responses of respective state governments in Colorado and Washington to the need for inter-island connectivity (as it were).

Colorado, for instance, can’t even agree how best to make up for a startling lack of funding for our region’s schools, which some might argue are of greater importance to the state’s future than whether we have mass transit connecting the different quadrants of the state’s population.

For myself, though, I believe mass transit on a statewide level should be right up there in terms of importance to our state’s future, alongside education, and should receive at least an equivalent amount of legislative attention from our state and local governments.

Washington’s education system, I may as well point out, recently was ranked by U.S. News & World Report at No. 7 among the states, while Colorado came in only at No. 18. Colorado outranked Washington, however, in terms of its transportation infrastructure (Colorado at No. 18 again, but Washington dropping to No. 20), so go figure that one out.

I guess the ferry system didn’t match up when factored in with broader questions about the condition of roads and bridges, commuting time experienced by residents and the like.

But it sure caught my eye.

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