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Opinion: Freeway expansion is the wrong way to spend Colorado’s COVID-19 relief dollars

When the pandemic is behind us, will we want ever-wider highways, more air pollution and increasing greenhouse gas emissions?

With Pikes Peak looming in the distance, traffic flows along Federal Boulevard in Westminster on May 13, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis’ Colorado Transportation Commission, a group tasked with directing billions of dollars in state transportation funding every year, met last month to decide the fate of $134 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds. In the face of a pandemic, a climate emergency and a brown cloud hanging over the state Capitol, the commission deemed it fit to continue business as usual. 

The largest project deemed worthy of COVID-19 relief was a $43 million “diverging diamond intersection.” Only $2 million was granted to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s much-touted “Revitalizing Main Streets” initiative in response to the pandemic.

As a physician who has been working in the COVID ward at Denver Health since last March, treating a largely minority and impoverished patient population, it pains me that the state has decided to use COVID-19 relief funds on highway expansion projects that will quite literally worsen respiratory illness among the most vulnerable in our community.  

David Mintzer

The American Lung Association warns that living near a highway can increase the burden of childhood asthma and lead to impaired lung function and higher rates of premature death from cardiovascular disease. 

A recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggested that slight increases in particulate air pollution are associated with increased mortality from COVID-19.

Of course, in Denver, like most of the country, residents living adjacent to highway pollution are more likely to be minorities and of a lower socioeconomic class and therefore suffer disproportionately from the harms of the pandemic. 

In dispensing this COVID-19 relief money, CDOT mostly stuck to its 10-year capital plan. However, this plan, which was developed over the past two years, does little to mitigate harm stemming from the pandemic or to achieve the governor’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It does even less to address the pressing issues of equity in our state. 

Take one example of a high-priority project from CDOT’s 10-year plan: the $300 million Interstate 25 Valley Highway expansion south of downtown Denver. This is a dinosaur of a project, planned over a decade ago with the express purpose of increasing capacity and vehicle miles traveled through Denver. 

Does this highway expansion through an urban neighborhood achieve the state’s pressing goals of reducing air pollution, supporting Main Street businesses and advancing mobility for underserved residents? Would the $300 million be better spent on a full build-out of bus rapid transit on nearby Federal Boulevard, which is a state highway with one of the highest rates of pedestrian deaths in the state and a high percentage of transit-dependent residents? 

Gov. Polis recently released a Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap showing the way forward. It is an inconvenient truth that to achieve the targeted 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, we will have to drive less. Electric vehicles will simply not be a sufficient solution over the next 10 years.

In order to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, the state’s roadmap calls for a 10% reduction in vehicle miles traveled. CDOT’s 10-year plan, which in the central Colorado region alone invests over $1 billion in highway expansion, actively undercuts this goal. 

CDOT now is in the early phases of planning an expansion of Santa Fe Drive from I-25 to C-470. This project has the potential to devastate ridership along the adjacent light-rail corridor, drastically increasing vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this highway expansion, CDOT should work with and invest in the Regional Transportation District to increase rail ridership on this corridor, take pressure off its roadways and fulfill its obligations under Gov. Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap.

As President Joe Biden shapes his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and with another infrastructure stimulus likely not far behind, it is important to ask ourselves now: When the pandemic is behind us, will we want ever-wider highways, more air pollution and increasing greenhouse gas emissions? Or will we be better served by reducing our automobile dependence and investing in transit, active mobility and healthier main streets? 

The choices our state makes today, including how we invest our COVID-19 relief dollars, will affect our communities for decades to come.


Dr. David Mintzer is a Denver Health physician and transportation advocate.


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