Colorado’s transportation commission approved new rules Thursday that aim to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas spewed into the air from vehicle traffic in a move that faced opposition from rural areas and criticism from environmentalists who say they don’t go far enough.
The Colorado Department of Transportation’s commissioners hope the new rules build on the state’s push to put more electric vehicles on the road while improving mass transit, biking and walking options.
The goal is to improve the state’s air quality by reducing pollutants that cause ozone and smog by taking the equivalent of 300,000 cars off the road for a year. That means spending less money to build bigger highways and roads while improving funding for alternate modes of transportation such as mass transit, bicycles and walking.
The state’s transportation leaders spent the better part of a year hammering out the rules, which govern how the state’s five planning districts will design and build transportation projects through 2050. The plan will be effective as of Feb. 14 with the metro area and northern Colorado the first areas that will be required to comply.
“It’s a critically important milestone,” transportation commissioner Kathleen Bracke said. “It’s urgent to get going. We can’t afford to wait another day, another month, another year to get going.”
The commission proposed the new rules, which require future projects to reduce pollutants in all areas of the state, in July after the state legislature mandated CDOT tackle greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation department was tasked with the changes because auto emissions are the leading cause of air pollution, and commission members said before their vote that the new rules will put Colorado at the forefront of national efforts to improve air quality.
It is the third major effort in recent weeks to curb ozone pollutants in the state. This week, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is considering new rules that would require more frequent inspections of oil and gas well sites to reduce methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, and volatile organic compounds, chemicals that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone. And the Denver City Council in November approved a measure that requires large commercial and multi-family buildings to curb greenhouse gas emissions by switching to electric utilities.
In recent weeks, the state commission added a section to the rules that acknowledged transportation projects are harmful to poor and minority communities, which are often nestled against major highways, and pledged to take them into consideration when planning new climate-friendly projects.
Those who supported the new rules said Colorado must stop building roads to support more cars. Otherwise, the state would compare to Los Angeles or Atlanta, cities notorious for their traffic jams and long commutes.
“Colorado has been building communities around cars for decades,” Travis Madsen, transportation program director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said in a statement after the vote. “When you build for more cars, more cars are what you get. That’s a big reason why transportation is Colorado’s number one source of climate-changing pollution, and why the air along the Front Range is unhealthy to breathe. It’s also why our roads are full of traffic. This rule is a significant opportunity to build for a better future, with less pollution and more options to get around.”
Two days before the vote, a coalition of 13 business interest groups, mostly from northern Colorado and and the Western Slope, sent CDOT a four-page letter opposing the rule changes, calling them a one-size-fits-all approach. The letter said the changes threaten an ongoing investment in relieving traffic congestion and that increased congestion would result in more emissions from automobiles idling on roadways.
Weld County’s Board of County Commissioners also issued a statement opposing the new rules, saying they would put too much of a burden on rural areas.
“Rural areas generally have fewer resources, and may bear disproportionate financial burdens from higher taxes, fuel costs and vehicle costs associated with GHG reduction strategies,” the statement said. “The state’s induced demand philosophy will affect land-use decisions for local governments in the metro areas.”
But Shoshana Lew, CDOT’s executive director, said the new rules are the result of compromise and took issue with the last-minute criticism during a Wednesday work session during which the transportation commission went over the final proposal.
“As for the claims of it being written as a one-size-fits-all rule, I think everyone who has worked on writing the rule would disagree with this,” she said.
If some environmental advocacy groups had their way, CDOT’s new rulea would ban highway expansions entirely. Earthjustice, Green Latinos and the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association in Denver pointed out in an October comment letter that freeway widening of any kind tends to spew the most vehicle exhaust in the direction of low-income and minority communities, a reality that’s tough to mitigate.
They didn’t prevail, but some advocates still support CDOT’s rules, portraying them as an important first step in the right direction. It’s also one that breaks new ground among the many U.S. states that are experimenting on climate policy.
Alexandra Schluntz, an associate attorney with Earthjustice, said the state can’t just wait for the mass adoption of electric vehicles to solve the problem.
“Electrification has a lot of potential, (but) a lot of the benefits are not going to be coming in the next 10 years,” She said. “More will be coming after 2030. The climate crisis means that the cumulative impacts of pollution now are really important (to address) — we need to meet those 2030 goals.”
The rules include compromises that include both closer tracking of total traffic volume on roads over time as well as nods in the direction of the rules’ detractors. The latter include a softening of language that, as initially drafted, would have barred the consideration of projects that smooth traffic flow — such as ramp metering or targeted expansions — as climate-friendly mitigations.
Now that section of the rules allows consideration of technology or capacity increases as mitigations, though it states that they’re unlikely to produce significant climate benefits.
CDOT’s rules have met some skepticism that a large, mountainous state where city-dwellers frequently venture out to explore can shift more people from driving cars and SUVs to cleaner modes of transportation. But Matt Frommer, a senior transportation associate at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, is optimistic, pointing to CDOT’s Bustang network as evidence that long-haul public transit can work.
“Our travel behavior is a reflection of our spending and our policy,” Frommer said. “If you spend 99% of your transportation funding on car infrastructure, the result is going to be a car-dependent society. … When I look at the mountains, just from a transportation-planning perspective — I mean, they’re ripe for good transit.”
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