Head southeast about 450 miles and you get to a point that’s a bit more hospitable. Just north of Lebanon, Kan., you find the marker for the geographic center of the contiguous United States. The marker isn’t quite where the actual center is, but since people live nearby and since visitors might actually want to see it, the landmark was plunked down right at the end of Route 191.
America is east-heavy, though. If you think of the continental United States like a large platter balancing on the end of a thin needle, it would balance about perfectly if the needle were under Lebanon. But once you add all the people — all those “elites” in New York and Massachusetts and Georgia and Florida — it would tip toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The center of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 Census, is further east still from Lebanon, 380 miles closer to the coast near Roby, Mo. Roby’s surrounded on three sides by Paddy Creek Wilderness, making it an inauspicious place to be the center of American population. But theoretically if everyone in America left home and started walking to one central point, the west bank of Rock Creek just as it trickles into the Wilderness would be the destination for which everyone, collectively, would have the shortest walk. It would be a serious drag to walk there from Alaska (much less swim from Hawaii), but it would be the least burdensome overall.
That center of population has shifted to the west over time. The Census Bureau has mapped it after each tabulation of the country’s population:
In about 1800, the center of the country’s population was just a bit north of Washington. The district was about a decade old at that point, and it was the perfect place to have the nation’s capital. Members of Congress traveling down from Maine or up from Georgia would have to travel about equally far to participate in the House and Senate. But by 1810, the center of the population was already fairly far west and, as the country expanded outward and then moved away from the East Coast, the capital — and the Capitol — have remained behind.
When he was running for the Senate in 2014, Ben Sasse jokingly proposed moving the Capitol to Nebraska. His reasoning was that the nation’s leaders could use a dose of that homespun Husker wisdom etc., etc., but from the perspective of actual travel, it made perfect sense. Move the capital to Nebraska and it’s easier for everyone to get to! Why not?
Let’s set aside the immediate impracticalities of moving the Capitol out of Washington. While it’s hard to get to for, say, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, it’s easy for representatives from the Northeast to get to thanks to existing infrastructure like Amtrak. That’s a function of population density and the entrenchment of power in the area over time; move the Capitol into Paddy Creek Wilderness and all of a sudden you’re going to see a lot of new spending on high-speed rail and an airport in Roby. (Buy up land while you can!)
But Roby isn’t actually the best place for the Capitol, even though it’s the center point of the population. While the population is east-heavy, Congress is slightly more northwest-heavy, thanks to a number of large western states that have two senators and a few representatives between them despite having small populations. So if we’re building a new Capitol solely for members of Congress to access — solely to cut down on those travel per diems and so on — we need to figure out the place that’s the shortest collective distance for all 535 of them, not all 320 million of us.
There are 435 congressional districts, each of which sends one person to the House. There are 50 states, each of which sends two senators. If we plot the center points of all 485 of those geographic regions, we get this.
It mirrors the population largely, which is to be expected. But it doesn’t mirror it perfectly.
So now the question is: What point is closest to all of those dots (giving state centers double weight, since there are two senators from each)?
We have an answer. The United States Capitol should be moved to the open field at the southeast corner of East Elkin Road and Route OO, southeast of Hallsville, Mo.
Before we get any further, a point of clarification. Google Maps lists Route OO as Route Oo, which somehow makes the odd name for the street even odder. A half-mile down Route OO is Chuck’s Auto Body, and the man who answered the phone when I called there on Wednesday seemed legitimately baffled why I cared about how the name of the street was pronounced.
“You’re located on this street called Route … ooo?” I asked.
“It’s Highway double-O,” he replied curtly. Oh.
Did he know how it got that name? He did not.
Since he’s been there, it’s been called Route double-O? Yep.
Is it because the roads progress, like O-M, O-N, O-O, O-P? No.
Anyway. The average distance from the center of every one of those states and congressional districts to the new Capitol location on Route — er, Highway double-O in Hallsville is 840.9 miles. That’s an average savings of 144 miles for every member of Congress, given that the average distance from the center of every district to the existing Capitol is 984.9 miles. Jet fuel runs $4.60 a gallon and a 747 burns five gallons a mile, meaning that we’re saving over $64,000 in fuel costs alone every ten times a member of Congress makes a round-trip visit to the new Capitol. Eliminating nearly 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, too, if that helps sway Democratic representatives.
If we decide not to worry about the members from Alaska and Hawaii, all of whom have to travel ridiculous distances no matter where we put the Capitol in the continental U.S., the new Capitol actually winds up in a much more hospitable location: Just off Interstate 70 near Mineola, Mo., west of St. Louis. An interstate-accessible Capitol is very Robert Moses, certainly, but it would be hard to beat in terms of convenience.
The only problem with uprooting the legislative branch of the government and shipping it to the Show-Me State is that we’d just need to move it again once districts are redrawn. Consider the 79th Congress, which convened right after World War II. Had we run the same exercise with the districts at that point, back when the population was more heavily focused in the northeast, our centralized Capitol would have been near Camargo, Ill. Every 10 years, it would have tracked westward, shadowing the population center.
Is it feasible to move the Capitol every 10 years? Probably not. (This is the point at which Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg pop up to recommend a virtual, self-driving Congress and we all roll our eyes.) Should we do it anyway? Yes.
At least until such time as the population and congressional centers of the United States have lined up with that lonely geographic center in South Dakota. The roads are there; the phone lines are there. All it still needs to finally lure tourists is something to cover that bare patch in the dirt. Why not the home of political power for a country that likes to call itself the greatest on earth.