Environmentalists want stronger transportation-planning rule as officials tweak proposal

Public comment period extended as Transportation Commission weighs Colorado pollution standards

By: - October 22, 2021 5:00 am

Southbound traffic on Interstate 25 in Denver on July 29, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado transportation officials have released an updated proposal for a rule that aims to make state and regional infrastructure planning more climate-friendly, but environmental advocates say the rule still comes up short.

The Colorado Department of Transportation formally unveiled a proposal for a state greenhouse-gas pollution standard in August and held eight public hearings on the rule across the state over the last several weeks. If approved by the 11 governor-appointed members of the state’s Transportation Commission, the rule would require CDOT and regional agencies across the state to incorporate greenhouse gas reduction targets into certain federally-mandated planning processes.

“We’ve really been putting our heart and soul into getting these rules right, and making sure they’re meaningful,” CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew told the state’s Air Quality Control Commission on Thursday. “And really making sure that, in the process of going through comments and updates, we do everything we can to make this as strong, as responsive, and as workable as possible.”

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The revised rule released by CDOT this week doesn’t differ substantially from the agency’s original proposal, but it does contain several tweaks aimed at addressing concerns from environmental groups.

The changes include new language aimed at protecting “disproportionately impacted communities,” which include low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that have long been especially affected by transportation-related pollution.

The updated proposal would also direct CDOT to keep a closer eye on vehicle miles traveled, a metric commonly used by governments to measure overall car traffic, and “consider revisions to these rules” in 2025 if vehicle miles traveled isn’t trending downward. That stops short of the codified VMT reduction targets called for by environmental groups — and CDOT officials also balked at several other demands from activists, like a stricter statewide mandate for the rule’s 2025 emissions goals.

“The proposal is still too modest and lacks a few important elements,” Westminster Mayor Anita Seitz in a statement issued by the group Colorado Communities for Climate Action. “But it is significantly better than the original proposal.”

How transportation planning works

The new greenhouse-gas rule 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.

Colorado has five “metropolitan planning organizations,” federally-mandated bodies that coordinate infrastructure planning in densely populated areas. (CDOT)

Under the proposed rule, the periodic planning documents filed by Colorado MPOs would need to adhere to a series of statewide targets for reducing transportation emissions beginning next year.

To comply, MPOs would need to demonstrate through modeling that emissions would meet the targets, or adopt certain “mitigation measures,” like providing additional transit services or improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure. If MPOs fail to comply entirely, the state would withhold state funding from certain high-emitting projects in the region in question, redirecting it to more climate-friendly infrastructure.

“It doesn’t take that funding away, but it does require that those dollars be used just on projects that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions,” Rebecca White, director of CDOT’s Division of Transportation Development, told the AQCC during a Thursday briefing.

We heard a lot of people testify about the personal impacts that they've experienced due to climate change.

– Theresa Takushi, climate action specialist with CDOT

Following the release of the updated proposal, the Transportation Commission will hold one additional hearing on the rule on Nov. 10, and continue accepting written comments until Nov. 18. The commission is expected to vote on a final rule at its December hearing.

The proposal has drawn criticism from some Colorado conservatives and rural elected officials. But Theresa Takushi, a climate action specialist with CDOT, told the AQCC that three-quarters of the comments the agency has received to date have been supportive of the rule.

“We heard a lot of people testify about the personal impacts that they’ve experienced due to climate change,” Takushi said. “They’re looking to this rule to provide significant greenhouse-gas emissions reductions in order to help with climate change issues.”

‘Probably the hardest sector’

In Colorado and nationwide, emissions from the transportation sector — including passenger cars, trucks, aircraft and other vehicle types — are the largest source of climate-warming greenhouse gases. Even as optimism surges about the potential for emissions cuts in other sectors, like electricity generation, experts and policymakers say progress on transportation will prove more difficult.

“Transportation’s probably the hardest sector,” AQCC commissioner Curtis Rueter said Thursday.

In the long run, state officials project that the adoption of zero-emission electric vehicles, combined with a cleaner electric grid, will significantly reduce transportation emissions. But with that transition likely to take decades, advocates for stronger climate action argue policymakers should do more to reduce car travel in the short term.

Those advocates have been disappointed by several recent moves by Colorado officials, including the withdrawal of the Employee Traffic Reduction Program and the passage of a $5.3 billion transportation funding bill that included little new investment in public transit and other multimodal infrastructure.

The greenhouse-gas planning standard was the top transportation-sector policy identified in an emissions “roadmap” released by Gov. Jared Polis’ administration earlier this year. As written, it aims to achieve a reduction of about 1.5 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent by 2030 — only a small part of the 12.7 million tons of cuts from transportation-related sources the state is targeting overall.

If the rule is enacted, much of its impact will hinge on the specific “mitigation measures” that are approved by CDOT and implemented by regional agencies. Along with the revised rule, CDOT released a 13-page draft document outlining the process by which those measures will be selected.

“Some GHG Mitigation Measures entail infrastructure investments, such as a new protected bike lane or dedicated transit lane, from which long-term GHG reduction benefits can be estimated,” the document says. “Other GHG Mitigation Measures may be more programmatic or one-time investments, such as transportation demand management programs or construction emission reduction projects.”

The draft policy also specifies that “capacity expansions” like new highway lanes or other traffic-flow improvements aren’t eligible to be counted as mitigation measures — a win for environmental advocates who say that such projects only encourage more car travel. The revised rule directs CDOT to finalize the mitigation guidelines by April 2022.

“If Gov. Polis and his team are going to successfully implement their Roadmap, they will need to pick up the pace,” said Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action. “But this important proposal, especially if they make a few key tweaks, will make a real difference to Colorado’s future.”

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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