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)
Colorado officials have approved a major overhaul to state transportation planning rules that advocates hope will shift billions in funding towards public transit improvements and other multimodal projects — and curb a decades-old pattern of prioritizing highway and road expansions linked with climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
On a 10-1 vote, the state’s Transportation Commission on Thursday adopted the changes to regulations that govern how the Colorado Department of Transportation and regional agencies conduct long-term transportation planning. The new rules require CDOT and the state’s five metropolitan planning organizations — federally-mandated bodies that bring together local governments to coordinate transportation planning in densely populated areas — to work towards a series of targets for reducing emissions.
CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew said in a statement that the new rules would allow the agency to “lead by example” on climate policy.
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“Transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas pollution,” Lew said. “The urgency of tackling climate action is real and inaction is not an option as we confront the reality of extreme events like devastating wildfires, floods and droughts becoming more frequent and air that is dangerous to breathe becoming the norm.”
Under the new rules, the periodic planning documents prepared by CDOT and Colorado’s five MPOs would need to either demonstrate compliance with the greenhouse gas targets through emissions modeling, or adopt “mitigation measures,” like additional transit services or bike and pedestrian infrastructure, aimed at making progress towards the goals. A full list of allowable measures is expected to be finalized in a subsequent policy in April 2022.
If MPOs fail to comply with the rule’s requirements, the state could redirect funding for certain high-emitting road projects towards more climate-friendly investments.
Advocates for stronger climate action cheered the commission’s vote, which they say makes Colorado a national leader on curbing emissions from the transportation sector.
“Investing in more sustainable transportation means giving Coloradans more options to get around: trains that go to more destinations, buses that zoom past rush hour traffic in dedicated lanes, and streets that are safe for biking and walking,” Carter Rubin, a transportation advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
The rule change was opposed by many conservatives and business groups who accused CDOT and the commission of overstepping its bounds. During a public comment period ahead of Thursday’s vote, Weld County Commissioner Scott James reiterated his concern that the rule “will hamper CDOT from its primary mission of safely moving people, goods and services.”
Investing in more sustainable transportation means giving Coloradans more options to get around.
– Carter Rubin, NRDC transportation advocate
Beedy represents the commission’s District 11, which encompasses nine rural counties in northeastern Colorado that have a combined population of fewer than 84,000. By contrast, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, with a combined population of over 1 million, make up District 3 and are apportioned one commission seat under state law, as is the City and County of Denver, with a population of about 715,000.
Environmental groups had unsuccessfully pressed for stronger measures in the rule, like a more explicit target for reducing vehicle miles traveled, and more substantive environmental-justice protections for communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution from transportation projects.
“It’s clear we have more work to do, because unfortunately the commission didn’t agree that highway widening shouldn’t be occurring in our communities that are most impacted,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado state director for environmental group GreenLatinos. “No amount of mitigation makes up for continued environmental racism.”
In a press release, the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, a Boulder-based environmental group, said that “effectiveness of this rule will depend on how well it is implemented.”
“This rule is an important step toward thinking more holistically about how we get around,” Piep van Heuven, government relations director at Bicycle Colorado, said in a statement. “By investing in more clean mobility options and building more efficient communities, Colorado can both reduce pollution and increase quality of life.”
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