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CDOT aims to be ‘at the forefront’ with greenhouse gas rules that would have far-reaching

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The Colorado Department of Transportation for decades has faced down activists and environmentalists trying to derail highway expansions that promised to fill the air with more vehicle exhaust.

So it struck a jarring note at a public hearing last month when a Weld County elected official lodged a new kind of complaint against CDOT — that the department’s leaders had become “preoccupied with cleaning the air.”

Times have changed as state transportation leaders try to force a reckoning with the fact that vehicle travel on roads is among the heaviest contributors to the heat-trapping gases that play a key role in warming the Earth’s climate. Proposed new greenhouse gas rules would transform the way transportation planning happens in Colorado by requiring CDOT itself and planners in its five major metropolitan regions to meet targets for reduced emissions from passenger vehicles.

If adopted this fall, the first targets would come in 2025 in the areas of the Front Range with the foulest air, including metro Denver, with targets for the rest of the regions starting in 2030.

Achieving those reductions would mean more heavy scrutiny for highway expansions and major new roads while diverting significant money to public transit projects and other alternatives to driving. CDOT’s analysts have projected that as billions of dollars is invested in transportation in coming decades, a quarter to a third would shift to multimodal projects, or those that reduce the need for cars.

“Colorado’s now going to put themselves at the forefront of what is clearly going to be … a contemporary, climate-conscious approach to transportation planning,” said Adie Tomer, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

But as advocates for climate action support the proposal — and push to beef it up even further — elected officials in some areas have voiced concerns about less spending on roads in a state with a fast-growing population. Other critics say the web of new rules would be unwieldy, particularly the need to offset the climate impact of needed road expansions.

“One of the concerns is, is this going to increase the cost of building a new section of highway by 10%, by 20%, by 50%? We don’t know,” said state Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican who questions how involved CDOT should get in climate policy, given Colorado’s extensive backlog of road needs. “I think that’s something we need to drill into before they get too far along on this.”

CDOT’s proposal would mark the culmination of its evolution from a highway department to a more complex role, in which it grapples with the climate impact of the same road system it’s charged with maintaining and expanding.

Its first major foray into new rules could be far-reaching. CDOT leaders even hope to nudge more local governments into changing their zoning codes and engaging in more urban-focused planning that results in shorter commutes and better-connected communities where driving isn’t required for so many people.

Tomer said that in the transportation sector, now the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions, CDOT’s planning-focused rules stand out among U.S. states that are experimenting with a wide gamut of climate policies.

CDOT’s broader mission has resulted from climate mandates issued by Gov. Jared Polis and the Democratic-controlled legislature in recent years. The planning proposal, released in August, is rooted in Colorado’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, the Polis administration’s plan to squelch those emissions from 2005 levels by at least 90% by 2050.

Senate Bill 260, a $5.4 billion transportation-funding bill signed into law earlier this year, directed CDOT and the metropolitan planning organizations for Denver and the northern Front Range to more fully account for climate consequences in their transportation plans, with initial updates due in about a year.

CDOT’s planning strategy is one of several potential policies and factors that state leaders say will reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades. For one thing, new vehicles’ fuel efficiency likely will continue improving.

But the greatest impact, by far, likely will come from the widescale adoption of electric cars and other types of zero- or low-emission vehicles, including by the trucking industry.

Shoshana Lew, CDOT’s executive director, and other officials say that while electric vehicles may play a much bigger role ultimately, Colorado can’t wait until 2040 or 2050 for enough of them to replace gas guzzlers — it must begin addressing poor air quality now. And state projections for the conversion to cleaner vehicles still leave Colorado short of meeting its climate goals for transportation.

That’s where the planning rules come in.

Cars, trucks and campers heading westbound ...
Cars, trucks and campers heading westbound brake as they come into big curves while heading down Floyd Hill along Interstate 70 on Oct. 4, 2021, near Idaho Springs.

Colorado rule goes further than some states

Colorado’s approach draws on the experiences of a growing number of states in setting transportation-centric climate goals — notably California, Massachusetts and other coastal states. CDOT’s proposal goes further in some respects, including the use of an enforcement mechanism.

The governor-appointed Colorado Transportation Commission would be able to restrict some state and federal transportation money for use only on climate-friendly projects if CDOT or a planning region fails to meet its reduction target.

“The rule absolutely makes it possible to do the important capacity projects,” insisted Lew, the CDOT director.

But major projects that are considered “regionally significant” would require a thorough review of their impact, likely requiring offsets in the form of climate-friendly additions or separate mitigation projects elsewhere within a region. Those could include dedicated bus lanes or pathways for walking and biking. Think of the Regional Transportation District’s Flatiron Flyer buses that zip between Denver and Boulder using the express toll lanes added to U.S. 36 several years back, though RTD has reduced service during the pandemic.

Still, the Transportation Commission would have the authority to grant waivers for certain road projects if they’re seen as vital but offer insufficient ways to offset the increased driving and emissions that are projected to result.

CDOT’s project pipeline includes potential expansions of more sections for Interstate 25, both up north and in Denver, as well as for Interstate 270. Also on the drawing board is a fix for Interstate 70’s notorious bottleneck and tight curves going westbound down Floyd Hill in the mountains.

CDOT is mulling potential mitigations for all of those, Lew said, including better linking its Bustang intercity bus service with local bus routes at new stations along I-25.  As it plans out the Floyd Hill project, budgeted at $600 million to $700 million, it’s creating a “micro-transit” service called Pegasus that will run smaller shuttles and vans on I-70 between Avon and Denver. Pegasus vehicles will be able to use CDOT’s express toll lanes near Idaho Springs.

Bustang driver Michelle Norton begins her 5 p.m. route at the Belleview stop in Denver on Friday, July 26, 2019. The intercity bus service has been among CDOT’s most prominent multimodal initiatives.

Under the proposal, the metropolitan planning organizations in Denver and the northern Front Range, which already are under federal pressure to reduce pollution because they exceed ozone standards, would face the first state greenhouse gas reduction benchmarks at the decade’s midpoint.

The Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction areas would join in 2030, with new targets tailored to each area (and statewide) coming again in 2040 and 2050.

The greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030 are the steepest, proposed at roughly 7%…

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