Greenhouse gas transportation standards meet opposition from some local officials
State transportation commissioners could vote to adopt rule as soon as next month
A cyclist rides on the Lakewood Gulch Trail alongside an RTD light-rail track in west Denver on Sept. 6, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
With a pair of sparsely attended hearings in rural Colorado this week, officials wrapped up a busy month of public hearings held across the state to solicit feedback on a proposal to apply new environmental standards to regional transportation planning processes.
The proposed rule, which the 11 appointed members of the state’s Transportation Commission could vote to adopt as soon as next month, is a major plank in efforts by Gov. Jared Polis’ administration to tackle climate change. It would require the Colorado Department of Transportation and regional agencies across the state to incorporate greenhouse gas reduction targets into certain federally-mandated planning processes.
In a CDOT office in Durango on Thursday, state officials held the last of nine scheduled public hearings on the proposed rule since it was formally introduced in August. One speaker was present to testify in person, while others provided comments remotely.
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“The Transportation Commission was very deliberate in asking the CDOT team working on this rulemaking process to schedule numerous hearings, and to hold them in every region of the state,” said commissioner Mark Garcia, a management consultant from Pagosa Springs.
In addition to CDOT, the new greenhouse-gas rule would apply to 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. Federal law requires each of them to submit periodic reports, including a 20-year plan outlining their infrastructure goals and funding priorities, which must be revised every five years.
Colorado’s five metropolitan planning organizations:
- Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG)
- Grand Valley MPO (GVMPO)
- North Front Range MPO (NFRMPO)
- Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG)
- Pueblo Area Council of Governments (PACOG)
Under the proposed rule, those plans would need to comply with a series of statewide targets for reducing transportation emissions beginning next year. The targets aim to bring Colorado’s transportation sector in line with the emissions-cutting goals outlined in House Bill 19-1261, a landmark 2019 climate law, based on a “roadmap” finalized by the Polis administration earlier this year.
Greg Levine, a county commissioner from Hinsdale County, testified at Thursday’s hearing in support of the rule. Located in a remote area of the San Juan Mountains, Hinsdale is Colorado’s least populated county, with fewer than 800 residents.
“We’re feeling the effects of climate change perhaps more than anywhere in the state,” Levine said. “The emissions from vehicles are contributing to a changing climate that results in heat and drought that was truly unimaginable only a few years ago.”
The emissions from vehicles are contributing to a changing climate that results in heat and drought that was truly unimaginable only a few years ago.
– Hinsdale County Commissioner Greg Levine
As in many other rural parts of the state, he added, it’s particularly difficult in Hinsdale County to reduce gas-powered vehicle use.
“Because of our low population and our remote location, we are especially challenged to address emissions from vehicles,” Levine said. “We need the state’s help to provide incentives and requirements for transportation-related emissions.”
Other rural elected officials weren’t nearly as supportive of the rule. Scott James, a Weld County commissioner, testified in opposition at a separate hearing on Oct. 5 in Firestone.
“The department once tasked with safely building efficient roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure is now preoccupied with cleaning the air,” James said. “To use a transportation analogy, the constituents I represent believe CDOT should stay in its lane, and are demanding transportation infrastructure, not environmental activism.”
Emissions from the transportation sector — including passenger cars, trucks, aviation and other vehicle types — are the largest source of climate-warming greenhouse gases in Colorado, according to state estimates, and the same is true at the national level.
Under CDOT’s proposed greenhouse-gas rule, planning organizations could demonstrate compliance with the new standards by adopting certain “mitigation measures,” like providing additional transit services or improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure — though the exact list has yet to be finalized.
“CDOT has more work to do to establish the specifics of these mitigation measures, including what they might include and how impactful they might be in terms of greenhouse-gas reductions,” said Theresa Takushi, a climate action specialist with CDOT. “Those details will be provided in a separate policy.”
If MPOs fail to comply entirely, the state would redirect state funding away from certain high-emitting projects in the region in question, “requiring that dollars be focused on projects that help reduce transportation emissions,” the rule says.
State officials have been developing the rule for more than a year, and it was identified as a top priority in the Polis administration’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, released in January. Another top policy in the roadmap, the Employee Traffic Reduction Program, was dropped by state air-quality officials earlier this year after pushback from business and conservative groups.
In public hearings over the last several weeks, opposition to the greenhouse-gas rule has echoed many of the same anti-government objections lodged against ETRP.
“We have to be able to honor the ability of people to utilize their own freedom to travel where they want to, when they want to,” said Tom Norton, a former CDOT director and mayor of Greeley who testified in opposition to the rule. “Mass transit cannot provide that outside the core of Denver.”
As drafted, the rule would exempt three of Colorado’s MPOs — in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Grand Junction — from the first round of emissions-reduction targets in 2025. Supporters of more aggressive climate action were critical of those exemptions.
“(Greenhouse gas) reductions in the early years are essential to achieving our targets, and it’s essential that each region of the state actively takes steps to meeting these targets in the near-term horizon,” said Boulder City Council member Aaron Brockett in testimony this week.
Environmental advocates have also called on CDOT and the Transportation Commission to set specific targets for reducing vehicle miles traveled, a metric commonly used by local governments to measure overall car traffic. Reducing VMT in the short term, rather than relying too heavily on the transition to electric vehicles to reduce emissions, is especially important in rural and disadvantaged parts of the state, advocates said.
“It’s simply not realistic for many of our community members to own or purchase EVs,” Abe Herman, a Grand Junction City Council member, said at the Oct. 5 hearing. “We also need meaningful trip-reduction programs and vehicle miles traveled programs.”
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