Climate-friendly transportation standards required for Colorado metro areas under new state policy

Environmental justice advocates object to delayed equity provisions

By: - May 20, 2022 7:26 am

An electric bus in Boulder on May 31, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado transportation officials on Thursday endorsed the state’s most detailed plan yet to shift billions in funding away from high-polluting road and highway projects and towards public transit and other more climate-friendly options.

The state Transportation Commission voted unanimously to approve a policy directive containing detailed implementation plans for the state’s new greenhouse gas standards, which the commission previously approved in December after months of public outreach and more than a year of planning by Gov. Jared Polis’ administration.

“What’s in front of us today, I think is really exciting,” commissioner Kathleen Bracke, a Boulder County transportation planner, said prior to Thursday’s vote. “It’s the product of all of that work, and the iterations that happened, and the input that has been incorporated (during) this process.”

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Designed to cut carbon pollution from the transportation sector, the recently enacted standards require state and local planners to meet a series of greenhouse gas reduction targets, or otherwise adopt “mitigation measures” to make progress towards the goals.

The 46-page policy approved by the commission on Thursday centers on a detailed point system by which regional planning agencies will be graded on their mitigation efforts.

Some of the potential mitigation measures and their scores include:

  • 12 points per mile of two-way bike lanes in an urban area
  • 4 points per mile of two-way bike lanes in a suburban area
  • 27 points per 1,000 hours of additional transit services offered
  • 22 points per 100 employees teleworking an additional one day per week
  • 1,637 points per 1,000 dwelling units in a suburban area that eliminates residential parking minimums
  • 92 points per diesel transit bus replaced with an electric bus

Scores for some of the mitigation measures can be further increased by certain multipliers, like improvements built near existing transit stations, and point totals will decline over time, reflecting the lower emissions impact of alternative modes of transportation as more passenger vehicles become electric.

Equity policy delayed to ‘phase 2’

The new rule applies to planning processes overseen by both the Colorado Department of Transportation and metropolitan planning organizations — federally-mandated bodies that bring together local governments to coordinate transportation planning in densely populated areas. Colorado has five MPOs, which oversee regional planning for Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Pueblo and Grand Junction.

Under federal law, MPOs must file reports outlining their spending priorities and strategies on a five-year cycle. Those reports will now need to comply with Colorado’s greenhouse gas standards, as judged by CDOT and the state’s Air Pollution Control Division. Despite objections from environmental groups, the rule exempts the MPOs in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Grand Junction from the first round of targets in 2025.

State officials also drew criticism from some environmental justice advocates who objected to a delay in certain provisions in the rule that would address improvements for disproportionately impacted communities, such as the predominantly low-income and Latino communities in north Denver that have historically suffered from pollution tied to highways and fossil fuel infrastructure.

In a presentation to commissioners Wednesday, CDOT officials said they now plan to amend the policy to include “equity scoring/considerations” in a second phase in December.

The delayed equity provisions follow the Polis administration’s decision to push back another priority for environmental justice activists, the adoption of an Advanced Clean Trucks rule, until 2023 at the earliest.

“We continue to see the state government struggle with equity provision implementation,” Ean Thomas Tafoya, Colorado state director for GreenLatinos, said in a statement.

“Delays aren’t new for our community; they are the basis of the legacy of our historic environmental justice fight,” Tafoya added. “It’s time for change and that means the strongest rules possible without delay.”

CDOT officials, members of the Transportation Commission and environmental advocates all agree, however, that the finer details of the greenhouse gas rule are far from finished. Additional mitigation measures proposed by state agencies could be included in phase 2 later this year, and officials are planning for further revisions based on MPO feedback and “real-world effectiveness” in 2023 and beyond.

“It’s probably not perfect, but it’s new, and it’s very, very transformative,” Bracke said of the policy Thursday. “We’ll continue to learn as we go, and we’ll be able to make adjustments and refinements. And I just think it’s important that we get going.”

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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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