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Will Colorado’s emissions-cutting plan limit federally funded highway expansion?

November 19th, 2021
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By Ed Sealover  –  Senior Reporter, Denver Business Journal

Nov 16, 2021


As Colorado leaders celebrate billions of dollars that they expect to pump into transportation infrastructure from the $1.2 trillion federal package signed this week, a debate is escalating that could affect whether any of that money goes to highway widening in the state.

Colorado Department of Transportation leaders are taking public comment through Thursday on a proposed rule that could shift money away from any major roadway projects in the future if they do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And debate surrounding the rule now has broken down into two camps — it’s either going to nix future expansions like that on Interstate 25 North from happening or it’s not stringent enough, particularly in getting alternative transportation into lower-income communities near highways.

The proposal stems from this year’s Senate Bill 260, which will generate $5.3 billion in the next 11 years for roadway improvements, multimodal projects and electrification of the transportation system, but also adds new environmental regulations around projects. At issue is what steps the Colorado Transportation Commission should take to require that regionally significant projects mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions via added transit or other methods — and to what extent funding for highway expansion should be redirected to multimodal projects if such mitigation can’t be achieved.

To some opponents of the new proposal, the timing couldn’t be worse. The infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed holds the possibility of infusing unfunded state projects with the money they need to finish construction and reduce existing congestion, such as the $660 million that is needed to widen I-25 between Longmont and Mead and eliminate a problematic gap where the road narrows.

“The intent behind the rule is to dramatically reduce vehicle miles traveled and capacity-expanding investments,” said Sandra Hagen Solin, speaking for the Fix North I-25 Business Alliance, that supports the expansion, at a Nov. 10 public hearing. “We have significant concerns with the [CDOT] rules as proposed.”

But environmental organizations that pushed for the emissions-reduction language to make it into SB 260 to begin with say that the proposal is a good start that falls short of its goals in two main ways. It does not require a particular amount of money to go to bus, bike and other projects in disproportionately impacted communities beside major thoroughfares, and it does not do enough to require the reduction of not just emissions but of vehicle miles traveled, several groups said.

“It’s important that the rule go considerably farther,” said Becky English, chairwoman of the Colorado Sierra Club’s transportation committee, suggesting that the CTC and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) be prohibited from moving ahead with any project that would add to air pollution and violate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. “At long last, it’s time to consider social and environmental quality in our core values.”

CDOT officials have taken considerable input on the proposal, holding far more public hearings than it normally does on rule changes and adding an extra month to the comment period as it accumulated more than 200 comments from gatherings and at dot_rules@state.co.us. But it also ignited new concerns about the impact of the rules when it added a proposed requirement last month that CDOT and MPOs report annually on the amount of vehicle miles traveled and that the CTC be allowed to reopen and adjust the new rules in three years if they have not produced a reduction in VMT.

Mike Kopp, the president/CEO of Colorado Concern and the leader of a business coalition that pushed for the passage of SB 260, said there was no discussion at all around reducing vehicle miles when the bill was presented and progressed through the Legislature. Colorado is a growing state that has not dedicated the resources necessary to its highways to meet that growth, and shutting down projects that allow people to travel in their vehicles in less congestion will decrease both mobility and economic freedom, he said.

Scott James, a Weld County commissioner, said furthermore that to reduce air pollution via removal of vehicles from highways, there must be viable alternatives that consider the time and efficiency with which people travel, and many parts of the state cannot offer viable alternatives to personal vehicles. Plus, he said, access to automotive transportation can keep people out of poverty by giving them control over their time, and policies meant to reduce automobiles in impoverished areas are likely to have the opposite effect.

But several environmental groups argued that the accepted policy from the 1950s through 1980s of building interstates through poorer neighborhoods with higher concentrations of minorities is what led to the poverty and pollution of those neighborhoods that CDOT is now tasked with fixing. Duncan Gilchrist, a policy analyst with the group 350 Colorado, went as far as to say at the Nov. 10 hearing that if the new greenhouse-gas-emissions limits don’t stop the planned expansion of I-25 through Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, then the entire rulemaking effort has been a failure.

“CDOT and the commission have a responsibility to save Coloradans who have long been subject to racist and classist policies,” said Jenny Gaeng, transportation advocate for Conservation Colorado.

While the debate rages on about how much the new policies should limit capacity-expansion projects — there are some advocates who believe that CTC should not allow any waivers, as is now proposed in the plans — some groups say that CDOT leaders need to think beyond the issue of vehicle miles traveled in determining how they can improve the environment.

Nick Colglazier — executive director of the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee, which has not taken a position on the proposed rules — said, for example, that more discussion needs to be directed toward areas like cleaner fuels such as ethanol, and to reducing emissions without having to cut vehicle travel, which is necessary for delivery of goods and services. While Gov. Jared Polis has made a major push to move Coloradans into zero-emission electric vehicles, those vehicles still need roadways on which to operate.

“We need the infrastructure to be able to work. We need to get products and inputs from where they’re at to us and the market,” Colglazier said in an interview. “It’s going to take an all-of-the-above portfolio to get solutions that are invaluable to cleaning our air.”

Published in the Denver Business Journal on November 16, 2021. The original article can be found here.

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