CDOT’s greenhouse gas rules aim to battle roads’ climate impact

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, but 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.

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.

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% below baseline projections of emissions that CDOT’s modelers created by estimating the future impact of the building of transportation projects currently included in regional and state plans, along with population growth.

Statewide, when CDOT’s baseline projection for 2030 is that vehicles will emit 21.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gas, the reduction target would result in 1.5 million fewer metric tons of gas blowing into the air. Though small, CDOT says the impact would be significant — akin to removing 300,000 cars from roads that year.

Seeking “strict greenhouse gas limits”

CDOT is still collecting public input on the proposal and expects to extend the Oct. 15 comment deadline for another 30 days. It plans to release a revised proposal soon. The Transportation Commission could vote on the final draft as soon as its Nov. 18 meeting.

Environmental advocates who are used to fighting CDOT’s highway projects have embraced the thrust of the proposal, though the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups are pushing for even tougher provisions. Those include more limits on waivers and the setting of explicit reduction targets for vehicle miles traveled, a measure of overall traffic volume. They also want more provisions that would improve quality of life in communities heavily affected by highway pollution.

“CDOT’s draft rule doesn’t address a number of important issues, but we’re hopeful that the final rule will include strict greenhouse gas limits,” said Becky English, the Colorado Sierra Club’s transportation committee chair. For years, she was a vocal opponent of CDOT’s still-underway Central 70 project in Denver.

The Denver Regional Council of Governments largely has viewed the proposal positively, too, in part because its planning had begun to set greenhouse gas reduction goals.

But the reception has been cooler in more conservative pockets of the Front Range and the Western Slope.

Weld County Commissioner Scott James spoke up at the first of several public hearings on Sept. 17, criticizing CDOT’s fixation on greenhouse gases and suggesting local officials were better suited to address air pollution.

“As someone elected to represent the more than 330,000 people in one of the state’s fastest-growing counties, I must ask if (CDOT’s proposal) is irresponsible mission creep at least — or, at most, a violation of statute,” James said, referring to the state law authorizing the department. “CDOT’s mission does not include emission controls and regulations.”

That was true just a few years ago, but Democrats in control at the state level undeniably have assigned it climate responsibility in more recent legislation.

Grand aims and uncertainty

CDOT’s proposal comes with grand aims — as well as uncertainty about whether it will have as big of an impact as its supporters hope.

CDOT officials acknowledge the usual “multimodal” options — more transit, more pedestrian walkways and bikeways, and myriad new programs — might not be enough on their own. So they also hope to spur local governments of all sizes to consider zoning code changes that would cluster new housing near urban and job centers, potentially linking more people to transit and shortening car commutes.

The stakes are high, one recent report suggests.

A 2020 analysis by DRCOG, the metro Denver planning organization, of several potential planning scenarios illustrated just how difficult it will be to reduce driving and traffic delays as the region grows by a projected 1.1 million people in the next 30 years. Only significant changes in urban planning — along the lines above — coupled with extensive expansions in the metro transit network would actually achieve those goals, the report says.

Other scenarios that assumed little change in the area’s sprawling growth patterns came up short even if transit or other alternatives received heavy investment.

“I don’t think you can have a conversation about reducing vehicle miles traveled without having a conversation about land use,” said Doug Rex, DRCOG’s executive director. “The two are inter-connected, especially for a region that’s growing as quickly as we are. … From a practical standpoint, it’s going to force a conversation about land use and how we house these individuals.”

But land-use decisions get made by cities and counties, and they often get wrapped in emotional debate. Some regional planners have pointed out to CDOT that such decisions are beyond their control, though CDOT says their organizations can spark conversations or establish incentives.

Other critics argue housing density, even if it’s created with the best of intentions, often results in less affordability in practice. One skeptic suggested that CDOT tread carefully.

“Obviously they have to be concerned about greenhouse gases and the impact of what they’re doing on that,” said Robert W. Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. “But it worries me to see (CDOT) getting into mitigation measures that relate to things like housing and land use. I don’t think that’s their expertise.”

Poole cited past research that suggests the climate benefits from CDOT’s planning-intensive approach would be marginal at best, since they rely on changing people’s driving habits. He sees greater promise in supporting the adoption of electric vehicles, as Colorado also is doing with some of the money from SB-260, and building more toll lanes to manage highway traffic.

“My point I’m trying to make in some of my work is that we need to be making these types of plans not based on yesterday’s cars and highways, but on tomorrow’s cars and highways,” he said.

The planning organizations around the state are still weighing in on the proposal.

In the northern Front Range, local leaders in Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley are eager to see CDOT finish widening I-25, a project that includes toll lanes. They worry the new rules will make that more difficult.

The North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization since August has asked CDOT for various batches of data and modeling calculations so it can scrutinize the proposed greenhouse gas goals independently and compare them to its own models. Suzette Mallette, the organization’s executive director, said she also has questions about how the reporting requirements will work — and how they’ll compare to the organization’s federal ozone obligations.

“People are pretty much on board that (greenhouse gas) is something we need to address,” Malette said. “The bigger concern is, is this the right way to do it? We just don’t want to set ourselves up to fail.”

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