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A few months after being first elected to City Council in 1991, I came across a memo from Transportation Director Dave Zelenok suggesting that the city could save literally millions of dollars in maintenance costs by paving the Pikes Peak Highway. Since the ever-frugal voters had just passed city charter amendments that both rolled back and limited city taxes, it seemed to me that we had a pretty clear mandate to make city government more efficient.

The argument for paving the highway was then, and remains now, rational and compelling. At the time, the city had 17 full-time employees on Pikes Peak, a fleet of 25 vehicles or so, and an annual budget of around $1.5 million -- all this to maintain a dozen miles of dirt road! By contrast, the Mount Evans Highway -- same length, same altitude, same terrain -- had no employees, and an annualized maintenance cost of less than $150,000. Only difference? The Mount Evans road is paved.

Moreover, it was clear that the highway was responsible for massive environmental deterioration on Pikes Peak. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of tons of gravel had been applied to the road and much of the gravel had found its way into the ecosystem -- burying fragile tundra, choking streams and killing dozens of forested acres at the headwaters of Severy Creek.

Political innocent that I was, it seemed like a slam dunk. By doing the

right thing for the environment, you'd also be operating a government enterprise far more economically. Somehow, it didn't occur to me that the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, a one-day event that could scarcely pay its own bills, and which was attended by no more than six or seven thousand people, would easily thwart any change.

Although few in number, the race's supporters included some of the most politically potent folks in the city. My fellow council members weren't about to piss off the power structure just to please a few tree-huggers. If the Hill Climb wanted a gravel road, fine -- don't pave it. It was an easy decision for them, particularly because the peculiarities of the city enterprise system meant that any savings from paving the highway couldn't be used for other city operations. And because there were no tax dollars involved -- all highway revenues come from tolls and concession fees -- there were no citizens to complain.

Nevertheless, support for paving the road steadily grew, despite the city's mendacity. Incredibly, the city has claimed that asphalt paving is an unproven technology and has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in studies designed to prove that gravel's just fine. A couple of years ago, the Sierra Club finally figured out that the city wouldn't make any changes on the Peak unless forced to do so, and filed suit. The city caved and settled, agreeing to fix the problems within a specified time frame.

That was over a year ago. And now that we have our progressive, enlightened, TOPS-supporting City Council, you'd think that the city would be eagerly complying with the court-ordered cleanup of Pikes Peak.

But if you thought so, you'd be wrong. Instead of accepting responsibility for 50 years of mismanagement, the city has tried to pin the blame on the National Forest Service, from which the city leases the highway right-of-way. So naturally these two governmental entities are suing each other, and naturally the city has tried yet another delay tactic, hiring a new set of consultants to make recommendations more to their liking.

The result: business as usual. Although the city hasn't coughed up a dime to fix the actual problems on the mountain, our peerless leaders have happily spent close to a million bucks on consultants and legal fees.

We are blessed with a reasonably honest and efficient city administration. That's why the Pikes Peak debacle is so distressing. Just as a sudden flash of lightning in a darkened landscape harshly illuminates what the night has concealed, Pikes Peak's history reveals a vastly different government displaying both a lying disregard for efficient governance and responsible stewardship of America's mountain, and a crass surrender to local special interest groups.

Looking back at my time on Council, I'm sorry that I didn't fight harder for the Peak. Like most pols, I spent too much time sucking up to the powerful, too little opposing them. Let's hope that our current council members can somehow find the courage that their predecessors so conspicuously lacked, and do the right thing.

Maybe they could do it while the Mayor is entertaining the troops in Bosnia.

-- johnhazlehurst@aol.com

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