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Vote looms on new pro-climate CDOT planning rule

December 13, 2021, 9:39 am
I-70 jam Dowd Junction
A traffic jam in Dowd Junction on Interstate 70 (David O. Williams photo).

Environmental advocates are feeling hopeful as Colorado’s 11-member Transportation Commission nears a vote this week on a proposal to make state transportation planning processes more climate-friendly — but the rule’s supporters say the key will be in how the program is implemented in the months and years to come.

More than a year in the making, the new rule would require the Colorado Department of Transportation and five regional planning agencies around the state to make an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — or see funding for certain high-emitting projects curtailed. One way or the other, the aim is to curb tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks, which are the state’s largest sources of climate-warming pollutants like carbon dioxide.

Officials with CDOT and the Transportation Commission, which is made up of volunteer commissioners appointed by the governor, held 10 public hearings on the proposed rule change beginning in September. Hundreds of people either testified at those hearings or submitted written comments on the rule, said Rebecca White, director of CDOT’s Division of Transportation Development.

“People have been taking this rule very seriously, and spending a lot of time with it, which is a great position to be in, in terms of having a wonderful set of input,” White told commissioners in a Dec. 1 meeting.

The commission is scheduled to take up the proposal in its monthly meeting beginning Wednesday.

“This is a must-pass rule,” Matt Frommer, a transportation advocate with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said in an interview. “This is really the first big step we’ve taken to … start thinking about how we move people more efficiently and in ways that reduce pollution — and not just focus on cars, which has been the status quo for decades.”

A greenhouse gas standards rule was the top transportation-sector policy outlined in Gov. Jared Polis’ January “roadmap” for meeting the state’s climate goals. Following public hearings held throughout the state, CDOT staff released an updated draft of the rule change in late October, followed by a third version earlier this month, which incorporated feedback from commissioners themselves.

Among the changes made in the latest version of the rule was the softening of language relating to certain projects, including “capacity expansions” aimed at improving the flow of traffic. While the draft rule previously deemed such improvements “not allowable” for the purposes of evaluating emissions-cutting efforts, the new version says only that they are “likely not to” result in emissions cuts.

Such talk raises red flags for multimodal transportation advocates, who have long opposed highway expansions and pointed to research showing that the so-called “induced demand” of added road capacity negates any efficiency gains.

“These strategies clearly do not work,” Frommer said.

The change, which CDOT officials acknowledged would keep the door open to some capacity expansion projects, was made following feedback from several commissioners, including Gary Beedy, who represents District 11, encompassing nine counties in northeastern Colorado.

“Sometimes you want to do that induced demand, to shift some traffic out of neighborhoods, or out of a certain area to try to improve another area,” Beedy said. “I think we need to address this as holistically as we can.”

White said the new version of the rule “provides flexibility” while “still making the statement that those are not the type of measures we were thinking of as greenhouse gas mitigation.”

Compromise language

The amended language puts a spotlight on how the rule, if passed, will be implemented in the years to come — and on the lingering unease with which many view a potentially major change to transportation planning in Colorado.

The proposal has faced opposition from conservative and business groups, including elected officials and other leaders in the north Front Range area. Earlier this year, many of the same voices also opposed the Employee Traffic Reduction Program, a state proposal aimed at reducing car commutes, and successfully pressured officials into dropping the program.

“This is definitely compromise language, knowing that there were very different views coming from the commenters on this issue,” CDOT Director Shoshana Lew said in the Dec. 1 meeting. “I think it does thread the needle between two very different perspectives.”

The proposed rule’s new greenhouse gas standards would apply to both CDOT’s statewide efforts and the regional transportation blueprints developed by metropolitan planning organizations, which are required under federal law to bring together county and municipal governments to coordinate infrastructure planning in densely populated areas. Colorado has five MPOs, which oversee regional planning for Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Pueblo and Grand Junction.

Under the proposed rule, the periodic planning documents filed by these MPOs would need to outline specific “mitigation measures,” such as providing additional transit services or improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure, aimed at reducing transportation emissions.

Though the rule would make some key concessions to address concerns from rural and suburban areas — including exempting Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Grand Junction from the first round of targets in 2025 — many conservatives have remained steadfastly opposed to the changes.

“The constituents I represent believe CDOT should stay in its lane, and are demanding transportation infrastructure, not environmental activism,” Weld County commissioner Scott James told commissioners in October.

Advocates for stronger climate action don’t disagree that the rule could represent a significant change in philosophy for CDOT.

“I think what we’re seeing is CDOT doing some real soul-searching right now,” Frommer said. “Traditionally, they’ve almost exclusively focused on infrastructure for cars.”

Much will depend on which mitigation measures will count towards compliance with the rule — a list that CDOT and the Transportation Commission will finalize in a subsequent policy in April. But Frommer said he’s been encouraged by the items in a preliminary memo, which focus on measures like transit improvements and better land-use policy.

Alex Schluntz, an attorney with environmental group Earthjustice, said the rule could also play an important role in reducing disproportionate impacts from polluting transportation projects, like the expansion of Interstate 70 in north Denver, which have long harmed low-income communities and people of color. Several changes made in the latest draft of the rule were aimed at strengthening its environmental-justice provisions, but advocates say more will need to be done.

“Currently the rule has some procedural protections, some transparency around what’s happening in disproportionately impacted communities, but it’s short on substantive protections,” Schluntz said.

If approved, the rule could go into effect at a busy time for Colorado transportation planners, who are preparing for big infusions of cash from both the federal government, in the form of a major infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last month, and the state, which passed a $5.3 billion transportation funding bill of its own earlier this year. CDOT is expected to update its list of priorities in its 10-year plan by April, with MPOs due to submit new plans of their own by next October.

“There’s a great opportunity here in the next few months for CDOT to update that plan,” said Frommer. “And that’s when we’ll see what projects they decide to fund moving forward, and what impact this rule will have, measurably.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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