Why is Frcc Closing its Brighton Center?

On June 30th, FRCC’s Brighton Campus is going to permanently close its doors. The announcement was made in March, with the administration saying that “Our lease on the center expires [this June] and our most recent center director recently resigned- which makes this a natural time to review the future of the center.” After analyzing the situation, the administration estimated that closing the center would save the college about $500,000 annually, and they don’t think that the students lost during the pandemic are going to come back.

“It’s definitely a shame,” said Jeff Tilma, operations coordinator at the Brighton Center. “It provides access to the community. There’s not a lot of opportunities here in Brighton for people to take classes. Obviously, we have the remote element, so they can be met that way.” However, he said, “With our enrollment as low as it was, I wasn’t shocked.”

Anna Fajardo, Coordinator for Testing and Welcome center at the Brighton Center, felt differently.  “We were shocked. We were very, very shocked,” Fajardo said. “[We had thought] ‘well it’s COVID, we’ll have some leeway,’ but I guess not.” As for whether or not the decision was made too soon, Fajardo said, “I don’t know if they jumped the gun on [the closure], but we weren’t showing the numbers we needed to.” 

Asked about the $500,000 the college would save by closing the campus, she asked an important question: “Is it worth it to this community?”

To put in perspective how much $500,000 is, Tricia Johnson, Vice President at FRCC’s Westminster Campus, put it in terms of a pay raise. “$500,000 a year would enable us to do about a 1% pay increase to every employee across the college,” Johnson said, “and these are really challenging times for our employees as the cost of living in our service area has gone up dramatically in the last couple of years, so that’s why we liken it to what it enables us to do with a pay increase so we can try to keep our good employees here at the college.” 

As for whether or not the administration was too early on the decision to close the center, Dr. Johnson doesn’t believe so, “In terms of waiting it out, I think it’s important to say that that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last two years. In the first year [2020-2021], we recognized that nothing was normal that year. We were regularly having to quarantine, and [ask] ‘could we do classes in person?’ So we said, ‘ok we know that that year is not something we can base a decision solely on’ and so we thought: ‘ok, 2021-2022, we’ll be back in person.” … “We waited an entire additional year to see: ‘are we able to bring that enrollment back up?’, and in the first year, 2020-2021, we were at 41 FTE, so we knew ‘ok that’s not a great number’, but we knew it was pandemic impacted. This year, when we could bring all of our classes back in person, we only have 33 FTE.”

That may only be a decline of eight students, but because the number was so low, to begin with, that actually represents a drop of over 20 percent. Prior to the pandemic, the center had 90 FTE students enrolled, meaning that there was nearly a 60 percent decrease over just two years. It also demonstrates to the administration that the Brighton Center was not only not recovering, but it was actually continuing to decline.

That is compared to the rest of FRCC, which did not see a significant drop in enrollment across the same period – or at least, not beyond the drop that had already been taking place over the last ten years. That’s another important consideration: FRCC is not in the same position today as it was in 2009 when the Brighton Center opened. “When you look at the numbers for [all of] our campuses, we’ve been seeing some pretty steep declines [in enrollment] over the last ten years as a college,” Johnson said. “We’re averaging about a 6.5% drop [in enrollment per semester] across all our campuses.” 

With that in mind, it may not be financially responsible for FRCC to spend money to maintain a campus with such low enrollment. Although it’s important to note that all other FRCC campuses are able to cover their costs, Johnson stressed that there are no considerations whatsoever about closing any other locations.

So it’s worth asking if the Brighton Center can’t financially sustain itself, and the rest of FRCC isn’t in a position to spare the cash to maintain the center, would it be possible to use federal stimulus money to sustain Brighton Center? After all, much of the decline is COVID-related, isn’t it? The short answer: No. “There are really specific rules on what we’re allowed to do with each of the [stimulus packages],” Johnson said. “We had to be able to 100 percent show that they were used in response to COVID”…“when I think about where the savings are, the savings are in the rent that we pay for that building – it’s very hard to say that the rent was impacted by COVID – it’s in the operations of it, the utilities, and of course the employees that are at the center. It wasn’t really a case that I could make that we could use [stimulus money] because [it’s not] directly related to COVID.”

It also doesn’t help that enrollment was declining even before COVID, “Our best year [at Brighton], we were at about 110 full-time students,” Johnson said. “Even before the pandemic impacted our enrollment, our FTE students had dropped down to 90, almost a 20 percent drop.”

Why, though, did the Brighton Center have such low enrollment? Everyone seems to have their ideas. Fajardo cited COVID, power transitions, and low levels of awareness and outreach. “I think, with COVID, we lost a lot of students,”  she said. “There also wasn’t a lot of knowledge that we were even here. I live in the Brighton area, and every time I talk to someone they’re like: ‘Oh! There’s a campus in Brighton?’ But we’ve been at this building since 2009, and at the old judicial building since 1998…, and so I think our outreach was not as we had it before, and then [the director] quit, and then we got John [the most recent director], and then COVID hit…so I think it was a lot of things.”

Dr. Johnson suspected it might have something to do with the location, “That’s what we’ve been grappling with for years, is ‘why hasn’t it boomed?’ When you look at where the growth is within Brighton, that’s not where the [campus] is, so I do think that’s part of it.” However, she also expressed uncertainty about the true cause. “I wish I knew the answer,” Johnson said. “I wish I knew it was just because of outreach – because I know that the staff there, especially Cynthia Garcia and Anna Fajardo, they’ve been doing good outreach work, and I look at the College Now team, they connect really well will 27J, and the schools. So I think that, while they’re absolutely was transition in terms of the director at the Brighton Center, the folks who were right at the front working with students were continuing to do a lot of that outreach, so I’m not exactly sure what the challenge was there.”

As for whether or not FRCC will leave the Brighton area altogether, Dr. Johnson says they will not. “One of the things we are looking at … is the phlebotomy program,” she said. “It’s a one-semester program where students come in, prepare, and then get out there and go to work after that amount of time,”…“and we’ve had full classes [for that program], which is great! And not having the center doesn’t mean we can’t have that anymore. So we are actually in the midst of looking at what other partners within the community we might be able to rent a room [from] to offer that training, to keep phlebotomy training within the Brighton community. So I do envision us continuing to be in the community – it would just look different. So we’re looking at how we can do more partnerships like that to keep the services in the community.”

While no plans to re-open another center in Brighton exist today, FRCC has come back from far worse declines in enrollment before. So maybe one day, another campus will be opened in Brighton, but until then, the community will have to make do with FRCC’s other campuses, and the programs it runs in partnership with other organizations in the area.

How FRCC Lost its Solar Panels

FRCC’s Westminster campus began construction in 1975. Originally a new location for Community College of Denver’s (CCD) North Campus, it was built at the height of the oil crisis, when energy efficiency and fossil fuel consumption were at the top of everyone’s mind. As a result, the Westminster Campus was built with energy efficiency as a top priority. According to an article published in CCD’s student newspaper, The Solar Times in 1977, the whole building was designed around energy. It was set into the side of a hill to take advantage of the insulative properties of the earth and was built with a (for the time) state of the art energy recovery system, which brought fresh air into the building while retaining 60% of the heat of the exhausted air. Most impressive of all, the Westminster campus was originally built with a massive system of solar-thermal panels, designed to keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. At the time of its construction, it was the largest such system in the entire world, and the only one in the world to be installed in an educational institution.

If you look for it, you’ll find surviving hints to the existence of this system all over the campus. For example, the old logo for FRCC, which is still in place on the front gates and some of the back entrances, shows a sun in the top left corner, shining above the mountains.

The angled glass windows by entrance 3 always looked a bit strange to me, so it’s no wonder that they were originally intended to look like a continuation of the angled solar panels on the roof directly above them. In fact, the panels themselves are actually still there, but they’re covered by metal sheets. Many of the corners on the front of the building have strange angled walls coming off of them. Those angled walls made a lot more sense when they matched the angle of the solar panels on the roof above them. This is also why the building is so long – it was necessary to have enough exposed area for the solar panels. So important were the solar panels to the school’s identity, that it was often referred to as “The Solar Campus,” and before the creation of The Front Page in 1989, the school’s student newspaper was called The Solar Times.

The system worked by pumping a 60:40 mixture of glycol and water through panels that were designed to capture the heat of the sun, and then further heating the fluid through the use of boilers. That heated fluid was used to warm the building in the winter, and it powered absorption coolers which cooled the building in the summer. When it was built, it was projected to save the college nearly $200,000 a year in energy costs. However, according to Andy Dorsey, president of FRCC, while the system may have saved the college some money while it was installed, by the mid-1990s, the system was degraded. The pipes that carried the heating fluid were leaking at their joints, and they were difficult to repair because they were (and still are) three stories up on the ceiling of the college, above the various open-plan seating areas.

And it wasn’t just the panels. By 1996, the entire building’s HVAC system was wildly outdated. According to the March 1996 issue of The Front Page, problems with the HVAC system included, but were not limited to: incorrect zoning, resulting in some rooms being too hot, and others being too cold, increased load from new office equipment, and added rooms that the existing system couldn’t cope with, original pneumatic control systems that were reaching the end of their life, and air from the swimming pool, which recirculated throughout the building, causing the air in certain classrooms to smell like chlorine. That’s right, along with the largest solar-thermal system in the world, we also used to have a heated swimming pool.

Along with the disastrous state of the HVAC system, FRCC itself was in a bit of a desperate shake in the 1990s. Tom Gonzales, president of FRCC at the time, referred to the school as a “dying college” in 1997, when the school was standing in the face of a nearly two million dollar deficit and a 17 percent drop in enrollment. So, when the college got state funding to hire a contractor to fix the HVAC system in 1996, and that contractor recommended replacing the panels with a central boiler, the college wasn’t exactly in a position to negotiate. 

Of the 1,400 panels that were on the roof, only 303 were kept in service after the 1996 renovation. They were used to heat the swimming pool and provide hot water to the school’s taps. Eventually, though, they were all deactivated. Today, the few panels which remain on the front of the school are covered with metal sheets, the swimming pool has been filled in (it’s now the fitness center), and the building is heated and cooled with a traditional natural gas boiler.

So, what kind of impact did this have on the college’s budget and carbon footprint? Not much, or so Dorsey told me. As it turns out, the old solar panels were never really that great. On cold winter days, most of the heat was generated by the auxiliary boiler anyways and whenever it snowed, the panels were basically useless. Because the water-glycol mixture always flowed through a boiler before going to heat the campus, it was pretty much always burning some natural gas. So, with the new more efficient boiler system, Dorsey suspects that we might actually be using less natural gas than we used to be. Of course, that may not be the case for the solar-powered absorption cooling system, which likely worked better in the summer than the heating system did in the winter. Unfortunately, exact data on this is not available.

Even understanding the reasons why they were removed and covered, it really seems a shame that we lost the solar panels (and the pool, but that’s a separate discussion). Unfortunately, functional solar thermal panels are unlikely to ever return to the roof of FRCC Westminster. If solar panels are to return, they’ll take the form of solar photovoltaics, Dorsey told me. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want solar back, though. About ten years ago, the college did an analysis on the prospect of installing solar-PV cells. It wasn’t worth it financially at the time, but with the drop in the cost of solar panels over time, Dorsey says it may be time for another analysis. So it is possible that one day, the sun will rise once again on the Solar Campus.

Conspiracies From the Past

FRCC is not without its own set of mysteries. Let us explore one mystory pulled from the past archives by Seth Ciancio. (All transcriptions are printed as is)

Volume 12, Number 4 February 1st 1999

Hidden Camera Found

In a scenario that still mystifies the staff, The Front Page student newspaper office at the Westminster campus appears to have been secretly set up for video surveillance – or used in a clever hoax by a disgruntled former college employee. 

A time lapse camera and recorder were discovered in the office ceiling November 18, 1998. Since then, after several interviews with key personnel at Front Range Community College and an ongoing investigation by the Westminster police- plus a private investigator hired by the college- there are still many unanswered questions. 

On November 17, The Front Page received an anonymous letter warning that surveillance cameras had been used in the past at FRCC, and specifically one in The Front Page office. The letter appeared to be some sort of confession by a former employee of FRCC. The writer explained why a camera was placed in the office, expressed remorse and apologized to The Front Page staff. According to The Front Page policy, the letter could not be printed because it was not signed. 

After the staff read the letter, one member noticed an acoustical ceiling tile slightly askew from its grid. When he removed the tile, the ceiling revealed its secret- a video surveillance set-up. The surveillance camera and videocassette recorder were found and removed by the newspaper staff. The camera was not hooked up to the VCR, nor was the VCR plugged in. The power cord was hanging down the wall near an electrical outlet. A video tape, marked “Public Safety , #1” was in the VCR, but the tape was blank. A note, taped to the top of the VCR was written on a page from a desk-top calendar, dated Thursday, March 5, 1998. It said, “Put Back. (Expletive.) We Need One Camera.” 

The anonymous letter further indicated that cameras were hidden to catch people or departments with which campus security allegedly had experienced problems. The letter also said The Front Page had published an article that made derogatory remarks about campus security. 

Specifically, the article referred to a theft that had occurred in the FRCC west parking lot on January 27, 1998. The article appeared in the February 1998 edition of The Front Page. It gave examples of how security allegedly used cameras to catch posible thieves at FRCC. According to the author of the letter, students deserved an apology for any surveillance of The Front Page staff. Because the letter came without a signature, the staff admits its (page break) validity is left open to doubt. Simply addressed “Dear Front Range Newspaper,” the letter shows some knowledge of the procedures at FRCC. The use of surveillance cameras to combat theft is a fairly standard and legal practice in many public and private facilities. However, the legality of secretly using surveillance equipment on employees is questionable. 

The Front Page adviser Mark Shaw reported the incident to FRCC administration on November 23, five days after it occurred. However, it was two weeks before the administration authorized a police investigation. The Monday following its discovery, Shaw informed FRCC Vice President of Finance and Administration Bob Rizzuto that a surveillance camera had been found in The Front Page office. Rizzuto said he was “shocked…l wanted to find out why.” 

On December 3, Westminster police arrived at the newspaper office to take a report and seize the equipment. The two officers said the case was being treated as a theft because the

head of campus security, George Smith, indicated that the equipment had been stolen from his office several months before. According to police, this theft was never reported. 

That night, police notified Smith of the developments. When the officers asked him about the camera, Smith said, “That disappeared six months ago.” Later, when asked to verify ownership, Smith said that he could do so not because it was “so old,” but he said “that looks like our equipment.” Smith told police, ‘That’s the one that was stolen,” and went on to say that public safety no longer has any surveillance equipment. 

However, Bill McCracken, current head of facilities at FRCC, retains the only two surveillance cameras locked up as ordered by Vice President Michele Haney. Before McCracken assumed the position of facilities director in March of 1998, he said that a surveillance camera and VCR had been stolen from the college. He said that surveillance equipment had been utilized in “strategic locations to monitor activities” because there was a high incidence of theft around the school at the time. 

When questioned about the authorization of surveillance equipment, McCracken said, “I personally do not put cameras anywhere; that has to come from the vice president.” McCracken, when told that a stolen property report had never been filed with the Westminster Police Department for the camera setup, said he did not know why. 

Mike Redmond, director of facilities at FRCC until December 16, 1997, confirmed that some theft had been occurring at FRCC during his tenure. According to Redmond, his administration purchased and had been using surveillance equipment since 1996. Cameras were used to catch thieves at the change and soda machines as well as the tool and equipment sheds in the rear of the school. This surveillance, Redmond said, was authorized by FRCC President Tom Gonzales. 

Redmond said, however, that Gonzales never autho- rized the use of cameras for surveillance in private offices. Redmond said that such surveillance would have to be done in conjunction with a police investigation. He went on to say that no cameras or other surveillance equipment were stolen while he was director of facilities. “At least not any that were reported to me,” he said. 

Haney later said: “…my surprise was…God, I mean why would you put them (surveillance cameras) in The Front Page? I mean, that’s never been in any discussion I’ve ever been a part of. We would not even suggest that would be appropriate. That’s just not something you do.” Haney took over the position of Westminster site director in March 1998. She is responsible for the facilities department and must authorize the use of any surveillance equipment at FRCC, When facilities became her responsibility last year, Haney ordered the surveillance equipment locked up. Haney said she has not authorized any use of surveillance equipment on the Westmtnster campus since that time. However, Joe Valdez, a retired FRCC maintenance employee, was involved in an alleged surveillance incident that occurred in one of the maintenance department offices in February 1998. Valdez said that he and another maintenance employee found a working surveillance system in the ceiling of their office. Valdez said they removed the system, which was plugged in and turned on, from the ceiling and took it directly to Haney’s office in the middle of the night. They left a note with the equipment explaining the situation and later filed a grievance with the college. 

According to Valdez, they had three or four meetings with administration about the incident but “they never did give us a satisfactory answer as to why that camera was put in our office.” They were repeatedly assured that the incident would not be swept under the carpet and the people involved would be reprimanded. Valdez said, to his knowlege[mistake in original paper, lol] nothing had ever been stolen from his office. “There was no reason whatsoever for that camera to be in our office,” he said. 

Confronted with information that surveillance equipment was discovered in the maintenance offices last February, Haney said, “There were some situations that by privacy I can’t divulge to you. I really can’t share some information that occurred just as I took over.” Haney later said, “It was a personnel issue. It did not involve students.” Bob Rizzuto, while acknowledging that FRCC has two surveillance cameras locked up, denied any knowledge of the third surveillance camera found by The Front Page staff. 

Bob Rizzuto told The Front Page the use of surveillance equipment had to be authorized by the vice president, but that it was a past FRCC practice to set up cameras to catch thieves. One incident was the placement of a surveillance setup in English instructor Tim Rizzuto’s office window to monitor the activities of people using the tool sheds and buildings on the northwest side of the building. Tim Rizzuto consented to the use of his office by security. According to him, that particular camera stayed in place “roughly a month” and when the thief was caught, the camera was removed. 

The need to find out “why” all of this occurred led FRCC administration to hire Littleton private investigator Bill Blake of Blake and Associates. Rob Rizzuto, when asked why FRCC administration felt it should hire an investigator, said Westminster police are only handling the case as a stolen property claim. 

He went on to say, “It’s really something that I didn’t want our security department to look into. That didn’t make any sense.” He said the school needed a “third party opinion.” Blake, accountable only to the FRCC administration, questioned The Front Page staff, its advisers, members of security and other faculty. “He has talked to a lot of people in the last several days,” Rizzuto said. 

To date, George Smith, head of security, has had no comment for The Front Page and calls to the president’s office were not returned. Westminster police and the private investigator are continuing their investigation of the newspaper office incident. So far, no sources, including the police, have been able to determine whether a crime was actually committed.

Book banning in America

Last month, the Tennessee board of education decided to pull the book ‘Maus’ from their eighth grade curriculum, citing concerns about the violence, nudity, and strong language that the book contains. The board promised to replace the book with another, more age-appropriate book about The Holocaust, but the decision still sparked much discussion online and within academic circles. Many people are concerned that this decision represents a ‘white washing’ of history, and that students ought to know about the horrors of the past, while others worry that the book is too extreme for young kids. Given the controversy, it would seem valuable to examine how FRCC treats controversial books, as well as examine how students and staff feel about the issue. 

Marcus Elmore, a librarian at FRCC Westminster said that, 

“academic libraries, including FRCC, generally do not respond to challenges to materials, except insofar as the challenge is rooted in issues of academic inquiry.  We might, for instance, consider removing a book from the collection because it represents outdated or superseded scholarship” he said.

Marcus also said, “All decisions about the library collection are made by librarians, in consultation with teaching faculty, and are guided by relevant statements issued by professional organizations”

He also cited the libraries official position on the Support of Intellectual freedom, which reads: “The FRCC library adheres to the principles of intellectual freedom outlined in the American Library Association’s “Library Bill of Rights”, the Association of American Colleges’ and the American Association of University Professors’ “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure”, and the Association of College & Research Libraries’ “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” and “Standards for Libraries in Higher Education.”

Marcus also provided me with links to the standards that FRCC libraries follow, those being the American Library Associations “Library Bill of Rights”, the American Association of University Professors’ “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure”, as well as the Association of College & Research Libraries’ “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries” and “Standards for Libraries in Higher Education”.

Books that have or are banned in the U.S.

The library does also have a formal process for dealing with academic challenges that are made to library materials. Any student or staff member can challenge materials in the collection, after which the library director will convene a committee to review the case. The decision to remove the material is ultimately left up to the library director.

Marcus also provided his personal opinion on the subject, saying “I, personally, find the removal of materials like Maus a travesty, an insult to the library professionals who develop collections for student and public use, and a dangerous provocation.” He said,  “Given that the folks pushing this agenda do not see eye to eye with me and my colleagues on issues of intellectual freedom, I doubt there can be much in the way of reasoned discussion, but I hope that parents, students, and the general public will voice support for individuals’ right to read as they see fit.”

I also talked to Victoria West-Paul, the library director. She told me that “We are not going to ban books just because someone finds a book like Maus offensive.” She provided a quote from the American Library Association’s code of ethics:

“In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.”

She told me that she even keeps a copy of the ethics code in her wallet. It seems, then, rather unsurprisingly perhaps, that the library is rather unified against the removal of books from curricula, and certainly will not be removing controversial books from the library any time soon.

I wanted to get the perspective of students on this issue, so I spoke to Amelia Palmer, a student at FRCC Westminster, who said, “I think it is very Ray Bradbury esque, it is reminiscent of nazi book burnings which is horiffically ironic considering it’s the kind of shit the banned book is warning us about!”

Another student, who preferred not to be named, told me, “[schools] should not go around traumatizing five year olds, but kids shouldn’t be shielded from this either, because it happened” she she said, “I could see how, since it’s illustrated, it might not be good for kids” … “but since [the students] are teens, I still think it’s age appropriate” … ”I think that it’s very important to learn about things like the Holocaust more than ever, since there’s been some scary neo-nazi stuff popping up lately”

It seems as though much of the student and faculty at FRCC takes issue with the removal of Maus from the curriculum in Tennessee, and that nothing similar will be happening at FRCC any time soon. While some of the people I spoke to share concerns about whether or not the book is age appropriate, ultimately they all believe that challenging material that might make some students uncomfortable is an important part of teaching kids history.

Don’t Kick Out Russian Students-Invite Them to Stay.

Last week, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) proposed a new type of sanction: kicking Russian students out of American universities. “I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States⁠—those should all be on the table,” he told a group of panelists on CNN. The United States is host to approximately 5,000 Russian students, including at FRCC Westminster. The comment has been widely criticized by many people across the political spectrum as heartless, or ineffective. But what’s so bad about the idea, and what could we do instead?

“I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States⁠—those should all be on the table,”

So, what exactly is wrong with Swalwell’s proposal? It is true that American universities and educational institutions are a great asset to the country. Many of the greatest schools in the world are in the United States, and people come from all over the world to study here. So why not use that leverage against Russia? First, it’s probably just immoral on its face. The Russian students studying here had nothing to do with the invasion, and they have no leverage over Putin and his cronies. This is an issue with all sanctions- the economic devastation they cause is targeted disproportionately at average people, while oligarchs and dictators remain mostly unaffected. The hope is that, at some point, pressure from average people gets so high that the people at the top are forced to change course. There is disagreement on how effective economic sanctions are, but what’s certain is that this would not work. As mentioned earlier, there are only about 5,000 Russian students in the United States, nowhere near enough to apply any meaningful pressure to the Kremlin. So not only would they be devastating to those people studying in our country, it would be very unlikely to work.

There is also the issue of finances. International students pay far more than U.S. citizens for their education, effectively subsidizing our Universities. Here at FRCC, international students can expect to pay well over 2.5x more than resident students, and that’s before COF and other state subsidies that international students don’t qualify for. That means that by kicking out international students, we’d effectively be shortchanging U.S. universities millions of dollars, and American citizens would have to pick up the bill one way or another. Given that the policy is unlikely to even work, and would cost Americans millions, why would we ever do it?

Given the response that Swalwell got from his idea, we probably will not be doing it, but what can we do instead? I’ll answer that question with another question: If someone comes to the United States to get their education here, is there really any reason they shouldn’t be allowed to stay? After all, every Russian who goes to work back home is going to be working on SU-57s, Tu-243s, and other Russian military hardware. Why? When they could be working on F-35s, or a new generation of American MANPADS? Highly capable & intelligent people are an asset- not a burden, and instead of kicking Russian students out of the country, we should be inviting them to stay. 

Why stop there, though? Why limit ourselves to only welcoming Russian students from American universities? Any Russian who got a degree in any university should be allowed to come to the United States. Frankly, that’s even better. They get educated at the expense of the Russian government, leave, and then contribute to our technological advancement. Why even stop with just Russians? China is beginning to catch up to the United States in technological achievement, but technology doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from smart, educated people researching, and making breakthroughs in laboratories. So, why not offer the smart, educated people in Chinese laboratories a ticket to the new world? 

The United States is, for the most part, a nation of immigrants. One of the only countries in the world whose nationality is not defined by race, religion, or even language- but instead a common set of values and beliefs. An immigrant who moves to Norway will be hard-pressed to ever be able to call themselves Norwegian- but an immigrant who moves to the United States? I’m not sure about you, but I’d almost be offended if they don’t call themselves an American. That’s one thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world – anyone can be an American, and there are plenty of people in line. We just need to let them in.

Meet your New Columnist

Seth Ciancio is a staff writer for the Front Page, studying computer science with the aim of transferring to CU Boulder. He wrote for his student newspaper in high school and opted to do the same at FRCC. Outside of school, you might find Seth working on his project car, a 1979 Mustang, or digging through obscure internet archives to find decades-old declassified government documents, or maybe just playing video games.

The American Bread Line

By Seth Ciancio

The Soviet Union was infamous for its bread lines. But whether or not you realize it, the United States has breadlines too, and every time you’re stuck in traffic, you’re in one.

With most products and services, if there’s too much demand (the amount of a product or service that people want) relative to the supply (the amount that’s available), then the price goes up. The higher price drives people to buy less, reducing demand, until it meets the supply. But in the USSR, prices were set by the government, who set prices of essential goods as low as possible to avoid popular discontent. That might sound like a good thing, after all, who doesn’t want low prices? But the artificially low price meant that demand wasn’t controlled for, so people bought more of these essential goods than they needed, and had little reason to use them efficiently, resulting in shortages across the country. The Soviets didn’t want to risk sparking popular discontent by raising prices, but they still had to control demand somehow, so they came up with a novel solution to control demand: lines.

You might not realize it, but the same thing happens in the United States. Not for bread, but for highways. Most of our roads are what we call: “free at the point of use.” That means that, while tax revenue is collected to pay for the highways, drivers don’t pay when they actually use the road, and they don’t pay more based on when, or how much, they use the road. Essentially, the financial cost to use a highway is the same no matter the demand, leaving only one limiter on demand: congestion. 

Despite functioning differently, and having a different name, this has the exact same economic effect as the artificially low bread prices of the USSR. Because our interstate highways are free to use, people use them more than they need to, and they have no incentive to use them efficiently, causing a shortage of road capacity. Ultimately, just as artificially low prices created bread lines up and down the city streets of Kyiv, artificially low prices create “bread lines” up and down the interstate highways of the United States.

Just as artificially low prices created bread lines up and down the city streets of Kyiv, artificially low prices create “bread lines” up and down the interstate highways of the United States.

There are only two ways that have been proposed to eliminate these “bread lines” on our highways. Some people suggest that we should just increase supply: spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build our highways bigger and bigger, until eventually everyone is driving on them, and there’s enough room for all of them. Or, as I suggest, we could charge people market rate to use the highway. The more people who want to use the highway, the more it costs to use it. Just like with any other product, the higher price would push people away. Either they will use another mode of transportation to get where they’re going, take their trip at a different time when there are not as many people using the road, or they might decide that they don’t want to make that trip at all. The price continues to rise until there’s enough highway to go around. This policy, charging market rate to use the freeway, is called “congestion pricing,” and no matter the road, a market-rate ‘congestion price’ would reduce traffic enough to eliminate congestion.

Why can’t we just meet the demand with more supply? The biggest issue is that demand is a lot higher than you think. Congestion – the American “bread line” – does reduce demand, it’s just a really inefficient way of doing it. So even though it might seem like just adding one lane would solve the issue, the reduced congestion is like a shorter bread line, it just attracts more people. So if we want to eliminate congestion by meeting demand, then we have to build a lot of highways. That’s not to mention the long-term problem issues regarding the new car-oriented developments that will spring up to take advantage of the freeway space. The end result of the ‘meet demand’ philosophy is an all-consuming highway that endlessly takes up more and more space, produces more and more pollution, and costs more and more money, all for the empty promise that, maybe one day, the lines will disappear.

The end result of the ‘meet demand’ philosophy is an all-consuming highway that endlessly takes up more and more space, produces more and more pollution, and costs more and more money, all for the empty promise that, maybe one day, the lines will disappear.

It also doesn’t help that, while highways are static and unchanging, demand for highways is flexible. If we want to build our way out of the issue, then we have to build highways wide enough for rush hour traffic, and just accept that they’re going to be mostly empty for the rest of the day. However, if we change prices based on demand, then people will do what they can to avoid the rush-hour congestion charges. Students will schedule their classes for different times; workers will come in early, or if they have a flexible schedule they’ll come in late, and people running errands will reschedule. It could be as simple as eating breakfast after getting off the highway instead of before, in order to “get ahead” of the rush hour charges. However, they do it, flattening the daily demand curve allows us to move the same number of people with fewer roads.

What’s so bad about bread lines, anyways? While it is true that lines do work to reduce demand, it’s useful to keep in mind that not all uses of a good or service are equally valuable. If there’s a limited amount of highway capacity, and there is, it ought to be allocated to the most valuable trips, not just to the people who happen to get in line first. For example, a guy who’s using the highway to go to work probably ought to have priority over someone else who’s just taking a joyride. It would be impossible, and inadvisable, for the government to try and figure out exactly what every driver is doing and then weigh the value of all those uses against each other. So instead, we just ask drivers how much they themselves value it, by asking how much they’re willing to pay for it. Whoever’s willing to pay the most probably values the trip the most, so it makes sense for them to have priority. After all, if you’re not willing to pay two dollars to use the highway, was that trip ever really that important to you? 

If you’re not willing to pay two dollars to use the highway, was that trip ever really that important to you? 

Beyond greater efficiency, lines have a real cost. It’s not as obvious as a big toll sign, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Expert opinions vary, but some estimate that the U.S. economy loses as much as 179 billion dollars annually to congestion. You might not feel the hours of your life that are wasted away behind the wheel, or know the exact dollar cost of the meeting that you missed. If you don’t know them directly, you might not feel the impact of the hundreds of people who are killed a year in traffic accidents on Colorado highways, or the thousands more that are injured, but that cost is still real, and the fact that you don’t feel or notice it is the exact reason we need congestion pricing. If you pay to use the highway, you feel that cost. You feel it more than you feel the (much bigger) costs that you’re paying right now, and you (and everyone else) can actually take that into account when making decisions about how to get around, and how to live your life.

Can we actually make it happen? So the Soviet government set bread prices too low, artificially increasing demand, and creating bread lines. Why though, would an authoritarian, unelected government care one bit about the cost of essential goods? Look no further than Kazakhstan. Late last year, their government raised the ‘price cap’ for fuel, because the prices were so artificially low, that they had massive lines at gas stations and widespread shortages of fuel. While the price hike would have gone some way to alleviate the shortage, the people of Kazakhstan did not see it that way. All they saw was the price of fuel go up, and they, literally, rioted. If not for Russian intervention, they likely would’ve overthrown the government. 

Luckily, democratic countries don’t usually have this issue. Politicians tend to get voted out of office long before the people throw the government. Still, it’s evident that the people tend to greatly prefer lines over higher prices, regardless of overall economic efficiency. The problem, really, is that the benefits are spread out. Voters don’t see the widespread economic benefits afforded by lower traffic, and they don’t feel the economic burden that congestion puts on the economy. They don’t see the prioritization of valuable trips, and the economic benefits that brings. They might not even associate the lower levels of congestion with the new policy. What we can guarantee, though, is that voters will notice the big sign on the freeway entrance that reads: “$0.12/mi,” and they’ll certainly notice the new bill they get in their mailbox every week. Ultimately, the problem with “free at the point of use” service is an economic one – the costs are too hidden and too dispersed for people to take them into account when making their decisions. The problem with congestion pricing, then, is the opposite: the costs are so much more obvious, and so much more pointed, that voters would never support it, even if it is more economically efficient.