The Boomers

Posted Friday, Jun. 20, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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In 1971 I graduated high school and set out to make my way in the world, along with 80 million-odd other Baby Boomers. The first of our generation had a five-year head start on my graduating class, while the last of the Boomers would accomplish the same goal by 1982.

Contrary to our misguided belief, our generation did not invent Rock and Roll. No, that landmark shift in popular music had been created by our parents’ generation, to which Elvis and all the Beatles had belonged. Nor did we create computers or software, or even the semiconductor chips on which personal computers were built. Come to think of it, Ed Roberts, the inventor of the world’s first personal computer, the Altair 8800, wasn’t a member of the Boomer generation, either.

No, instead of inventing new things, we were the generation that became voracious consumers.

On the other hand, we had absolutely no appreciation for what it had taken to bring us the world, already built and ready for our use that we entered as young adults. Yet, looking back on those decades long past, we never thanked our parents and grandparents sufficiently for handing it to us on a silver platter.

Ghosts of Old Technology

In 1971 the Interstate Highway System was all but completed, just as the Texas Farm-to-Market Road grid had been finished; most of the work on the latter had been accomplished in slightly under three decades. For the car-loving generation Boomers would become, starting in the mid-60s — and which, 50 years later, still contains the most active car buyers — coming of age with our automobiles in a nation as large as America with all the major highways and roads in place was wonderful. Then again, we weren’t old enough to remember what it was like before. We took it all for granted because it was granted to us — it cost us no effort, and we’d never known it any other way.

When my father’s family migrated from Springfield, Ill., first to Phoenix and then on to San Diego, most of the roads they traveled were nothing more than graded dirt. Even when we moved back to Fort Worth in 1968, Highway 180 from Weatherford to Mineral Wells was the same brick road that had been laid in 1936. While the drive up Highway 199 to Wichita Falls sometimes revealed the smaller, older, now primitive-looking highway and bridges, long since abandoned, that ran parallel to it.

In fact, though, by 1971 the government was already two years into creating what we now know as the Internet. DFW Airport had been under construction for about the same length of time, and Houston Intercontinental was already open for business. And, since much of Texas is semi-arid and the state had suffered two massively cruel droughts (one known famously as the Dust Bowl Era and one the Texas-wide drought of 1950 – 1957), our parents and grandparents had done more than just build roads and erect major international airports: They also went on a lake and reservoir building spree.

Of the 18 major manmade bodies of water in North Texas, they had finished two by 1930. Nine more were completed before 1960, three more before the class of 1971 graduated; and since then we’ve finished four more, the last being Richland Chambers in 1987. Oh, and our electric grid was overbuilt, giving us electricity rates among the nation’s lowest.

Now, consider this: The Interstates, Farm-to-Market Roads, major airports, electrical grid and lakes and reservoirs were all built when there were only 11.2 million or fewer Texans. In 1971 the DFW area’s entire population was just 2.1 million people.

A Lifetime in the Making

Nineteen years later, in 1990, DFW boasted a population of 3.58 million and today it’s right at 6.8 million. Just to make the point perfectly clear, we 6.8 million people are still using the very same DFW Interstates and highways that our 2.1 million parents and grandparents built. We’ve made minor improvements in two highways, I-30 from downtown to Loop 820 and North Central in Dallas to McKinney. And of course, we let others build private toll roads because it cost most of us nothing.

Further, as we are now critically aware, we 6.8 million people still depend on those 18 lakes and reservoirs, again approved and built by our parents and grandparents. (Although one could make the argument that, as working adults, we kicked in for the construction of the last four.) And we’re still using the same airports; to their everlasting credit, those 2.1 million people then living in DFW bought a property the size of Manhattan, so they could build an airport that would last us long into the future.

However, as we took political power in 1992 with the first president born to the Baby Boom Generation, Bill Clinton, we steadfastly refused to raise any tax whatsoever to maintain or improve things. That was ironic, but we didn’t see it at the time.

Those Excuses

Being history’s most passionate car buying and owning generation, we have consequently complained the most about traffic congestion. But we’ve pled poverty every time someone brought up the reality that we needed more roads and highways to accommodate the extreme growth happening not just in the Metroplex, but throughout Texas — which, contrary to elected officials’ statements, our growth is not a phenomenon of just the past decade but of the past 43 years. And the excuses we had for doing nothing: People buying more fuel-efficient cars, using less gas as a nation and so on.

But the reality is far different: Today’s 26 million Texans obviously use more gasoline and diesel than the 11.2 million Texans did in 1971. For the record, according to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2011 Texans used around 15.7 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel. Add a dime a gallon in taxes for roads and you have another $1.57 billion a year for highways. In August of 2011 the Houston Chronicle reported, “For the first time in history, the Texas legislature this year appropriated more cash to pay for debt service than to pay for actually building new roads. $859 million per versus $575 million.”

That’s right, we could almost quadruple the monies we could spend to build new roads with just a dime per gallon gas tax increase. But we don’t. Because in a world where Maserati sales this year are up by 400 percent, parting with that extra dime per gallon is just more than the rest of us could bear.

It’s too late to show proper appreciation and gratitude to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations for literally handing us a near perfect infrastructure in which to go make our way in the world. Yet, aside from turning our nation from citizens who for the past 100 years owned our own roads into a nation in the future that rents privatized highways, what exactly has the Boomer generation contributed to society? Oh, that’s right: watering restrictions.

© Ed Wallace 2014

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com

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