Angry legislators from nine western states met here today, and although their nominal aim was to discuss the nettlesome 55 mph speed limit, their real purpose was to begin plotting a movement to free the west from the shackles of Washington bureaucracy.
At an all-morning meeting in Colorado's capitol, the lawmakers inveighed against the speed limit as one visible way the federal government lacks understanding of this vast and sparsely populated part of the country.
Many took the opportunity to tell two U.S. Department of Transportation officials present that the states can handle themselves without federal intervention.
Preston Cook, deputy director for the western region of the Council of State Governments, said the message of today's conclave "is not so much the 55 mph speed limit" but that the western states want to "show the feds we're sick and tired of them telling us what to do, that the states know best and should have the autonomy to make decisions."
According to Cook, 18 states nationwide (not all of them in the west) have introduced legislation related to the 55 speed limit, enacted as a federal law in March of 1974 to save gas and reduce highway fatalities.
Part of the complaint of the western legislators is that the speed limit simply isn't relevant for states with light auto traffic and long distances between towns.
But most of the frustration vented here focused on the fact that most western states have a lot of land but few voters, and aren't listened to by the federal bureaucracy.
This meeting was seen as a first step toward establishing a united front of western states that could exercise genuine clout in the nation's capital.
Keith Ashworth, a Democratic state senator from Las Vegas, and chairman of the ad hoc conference, said that President Carter "couldn't care less about some of our western problems."
"If little old Nevada or little old Arizona or little old Colorado runs to Washington with a problem, nothing would happen," Ashworth said, explaining the need for unity.
Some states, such as Wyoming, have killed recent bills aimed at either repealing the 55 mph speed limit or reducing penalties for violating it.
The pressure there was blunted by the Iranian oil cutoff and reports of impending fuel shortages.
But the movement that was demonstrated here is hardly slowed, and, indeed, a bill that would increase the speed limit to 65 mph, is advancing in the Washington State Legislature.
Ray Warner, deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said after the meeting that Transportation Secretary Brock Adams, a former congressman from Washington State, is "well aware that there is a movement growing in the west" against the current speed limit.
But Warner, who like many of the lawmakers present wore a button that read "welcome to the west: property of U.S. Govt." said he couldn't promise what the government might do about the legislators' frustrations.
In addition to legislators from Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, a staff assistant to U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) appeared and spoke about the bill her boss has introduced to repeal the 55 mph speed limit.
The group, which has no power in and of itself, recommended today that each legislator take back to his state resolutions urging changes in the current speed-limit law and continue discussion of the issue at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington later this month.
As Leo Corbet, president of the Arizona Senate put it, "Sometimes we feel like the colonies when we talk to the federal agencies."