The state agency that spent a century pouring roadways for trucks and automobiles now finds itself mapping out a new route — and paving the way to reducing impacts of climate change.
Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shoshana Lew sees that lane to greenhouse gas cuts when she stands atop a new park that will cap the $1.2 billion Central 70 rebuild at Columbine Street in Denver. Eight lanes of heavy-duty traffic will speed underneath. Yet where she stands, there will be bike paths, carbon-munching trees, bus stops and unobstructed views of the Indian Peaks.
With power utilities and the oil and gas industry already facing tightened regulation, the transportation sector at the heart of American work and play is the next largely untapped area for greenhouse gas reduction. Lawmakers moved to address that in the vast 2021 transportation spending bill, which redefined CDOT’s role to include being the traffic cop for the state’s emission goals.
Those goals, set in 2019, call for 26% emission cuts across the economy by 2025, and 50% by 2030, from benchmark levels in 2005 of about 140 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Through better planning for every future big road project in Colorado, Lew believes CDOT can help lead the way toward cutting traffic enough to meet the 5-10% greenhouse gas reductions required by the new legislation’s draft rules that the agency will vote on in December. And not just “can”, CDOT officials say, but “must.”
“We talk at a high level about the urgent need to confront climate change,” Lew said. Transportation’s share in global warming “is just a hard nut to crack, where it has to be done.”
But is every corner of the state on board?
Not Weld County.
The location Weld County Commissioner Scott James picks to explain how CDOT is overreaching is the crowded four-lane stretch of Interstate 25 through Mead, near Camping World, a segment in desperate need of widening. Weld County wants to help cut Colorado greenhouse emissions, James said, and with its huge feedlots full of methane-producing cattle, represents one of the best opportunities in the state to cap climate damage.
But if Weld County pushes to widen I-25 to six lanes, the CDOT draft rules will require local officials to spend millions of dollars on “multimodal” connections to buses and trains that don’t exist on the Northern Front Range, and to bike lanes commuters don’t want to use, he said.
“We’ve got people that need to get to their jobs. This is all just numbers in a model and not a true reflection of what’s actually happening,” James said, adding that Weld County believes that to get its pet highway project done under the new rules, it would have to increase public transit capacity 276%. “We don’t have that capacity in transit. It doesn’t exist.”
Why make CDOT another greenhouse gas dictator, James said, when the state health department and the Air Quality Control Commission already have the expertise?
“Frankly,” he said, “they should not have greenhouse gas reduction authority.”
Passing the Goldilocks test
The 2021 legislation gave CDOT access to billions of dollars in new highway and transit project funding in coming years, through new fees and guidelines on how to spend federal stimulus money. But it also required the agency to aim for greenhouse gas reductions from transportation sources, and to incorporate multimodal options in all significant regional projects it funds — adding bus lanes, safer pedestrian and bike access, and train and bus hubs linked to major highways.
Regional planning agencies like the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Northern Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization have to come up with local transportation designs that incorporate new transit, new zoning, and pollution modeling before they can get CDOT funding. If it turns out their funded projects don’t achieve greenhouse gas reduction, CDOT can make them spend any remaining money on expanded transit or other non-roadway options, the draft rules say.
The proposed fairy-tale ending gets the expected Goldilocks reviews.
Weld County and other more car-dependent communities say the transit requirements are too hot, and the respect for how people actually live and commute is too cold.
Environmental groups say the potential for meaningful greenhouse gas cuts is too soft, and the impact of yet more highway expansions on lower-income neighborhoods is too hard.
And whether the climate change impact turns out to be just right depends on the accuracy of a new generation of sophisticated traffic models, which must incorporate everything from how many people will buy electric vehicles to whether condo dwellers are willing to walk to the grocery store.
CDOT’s Lew says the agency is up to the challenge: First comes designing for safety, next comes designing to ease traffic flow, and now comes a whole new way of people-moving.
“This is saying you also have to ask these fundamental questions,” she said. “What is this going to do to change the shape of the places we live in?”
Tempering rural expectations
Before moving to southwest Colorado to head San Miguel Area Regional Transit, David Averill worked on solving transportation issues along the Front Range. The experience, he says, left him “not jaded, but kinda seasoned.”
He’s seen how the sausage is made from a variety of vantage points: Five years with CDOT’s transit and rail division, created in 2009 to integrate multimodal transportation statewide, and prior to that a stint doing planning and air quality work for the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, a collection of 15 local governments.
With SMART, he develops transit solutions for Telluride and points west in San Miguel County. He got into the business of public transportation to aim at goals like the ones targeted in the legislation redefining CDOT, so on one level he’s excited about the possibilities.
But while he’s not joining the chorus of complaints of anti-rural bias coming from other parts of Colorado, he’s also clear-eyed about expectations. The new rules, when they’re finalized, may not put the projects near and dear to his heart — think transit, bicycle and pedestrian initiatives — on equal footing with those digging into the thornier problems in the urban corridor. Yet he figures they’ll at least get more attention as air quality plays a more sharply defined role in the decision-making process.
That said, he doesn’t anticipate winning much of the $453 million over 10 years built into the legislation for the Multimodal and Mitigation Options Fund (MMOF), which would pay for the kind of projects right in Averill’s wheelhouse. The formula takes into account population and other criteria that he fully supports.
He’s just tempering his anticipation.
“I don’t think this is a game changer for us, but it’s going to start moving things in the right direction,” he said. “I’m trying to be optimistic, but at the same time, I’ve been doing this stuff almost 20 years, and you never quite get what you think you’re going to get.”
By his back-of-the-napkin estimate, Averill figures funding for his entire region could come in at no more than $4 million — the equivalent of six buses. Maybe fewer if you go electric. Then he asks himself: How many bus routes can you put out there and actually sustain over time with operating funding?
At some point, he figures, the state money goes away.
“I’m just a little skeptical that there’s enough money going to the rural parts of the state to have a huge impact,” he said. “And frankly, if we’re talking air quality, probably a lot of the resources do need to go to Denver and the Front Range because that’s where the air quality problems are.”
So Averill’s optimism battles against the unknowns — how things will play out in this first round, how the travel demand models feed into the air quality models and how all the discrete projects statewide fit into the larger puzzle.
“I’ve seen it work out with roadway projects where they show a really sizable air quality benefit that probably has a bigger benefit than an empty bus,” Averill said. “The only air quality benefit you get from a bus is when you fill it with 40 people that are not in their cars.”
About those cars. He understands the concern for the VMT metric — vehicle miles traveled — and how it can come into play when considering whether a transportation project will curb greenhouse gas emissions. Every moment a car is moving, something’s coming out of the tailpipe.
And while it’s true that just about every time he jumps into his vehicle, he racks up 100 miles or so — even if it’s just to get groceries — once he’s parked in Telluride, he really doesn’t need a car at all. Transit by gondola or even by buses that serve all the activity centers in the eastern portion of the county render VMT a non-issue.
“I understand why people get kind of bent out of shape about it,” Averill said, “because there is this perception — and perception is nine-tenths of reality — that if you’re picking on VMT you’re picking on rural parts of the state. And then of course with politics today, certain people are going to make hay with that.”
Promising premise, complicated reality
El Paso County looks at the new draft rules and wonders what projects might get nixed from its wish list.
First, county officials wonder if their long-sought and nearly-complete I-25 South Gap project, expanding and improving 18 notorious miles between Castle Rock and Colorado Springs, would have even started rolling under the new rules. Would CDOT have demanded local officials extend RTD trains or create an inter-city bus line or require single-occupancy vehicle tolls?
And now they wonder about pet projects, such as extending Powers Boulevard from where it stops abruptly at a T just north of Colorado Springs. They’d love to see the growing local residential and office demand move smoothly northwest toward I-25, and they think they could reduce pollution from vehicles idling in stuck traffic.
But the new traffic and pollution modeling on which so much of the future depends may instead ding the project for creating “induced demand,” the bugaboo of conservationists. It’s the well-proven theory that if you expand highway capacity, any short-term gains in flow and convenience are soon overwhelmed by more drivers and their accompanying pollution. Congestion quickly reverts to the worst days, and greenhouse emissions only grow.
“We don’t disagree with the fundamental premise of what they’re trying to do, but it’s just incredibly complicated,” said Andrew Gunning, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, which will be the local transportation planning agency charged with carrying out CDOT’s new planning rules.
Agencies can build bike commuting lanes, but El Paso County is much more spread out than Denver.
Cities outside the Denver metro region don’t have a big transit agency like RTD to pour mitigation money into if CDOT demands bigger cuts to pollution, they say.
Officials around the state say they are glad, though, that CDOT was given the job of incorporating the greenhouse gas reduction rules into transportation planning. At first, it appeared the Air Quality Control Commission, which regulates air pollutants, would be making the calls.
The Pikes Peak region feels it has good partnerships in improving air quality, and unlike Denver is under EPA ozone limits, Pikes Peak officials say. But some people at the air commission appear to feel a lot more confident they can change public behavior, says John Liosatos, transportation director for the Pikes Peak council.
“Some of the rhetoric around this made it sound like they had this idea that mobility was not as important as air quality,” Liosatos said. “And that if we stopped mobility, magically people would voluntarily stop driving, and we just don’t think that’s the way to go.”
Gunning thinks about the enormous number of steps between conservation groups demanding deeper cuts to vehicle miles traveled, and a given piece of land being developed with a mix of offices, close-by homes and stores, and public transit that would make cuts real.
“We have zero influence over that as a metropolitan planning organization,” he said.
Insufficient targets, protections
Although it’s long been clear that both transportation policy and infrastructure decisions greatly impact carbon pollution, planning has largely been separate — and that’s one challenge of implementing the new law, says Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 40 local governments across the state.
“In general, it makes a ton of sense for CDOT to be at that table and to play a big role because if they’re not, then they’re off trying to meet one set of goals that is directly at odds with goals other agencies are trying to meet,” he said, adding that bringing CDOT into that group of agencies addressing emissions fosters better and more thoughtful integration.
Smith and his organization — CC4CA in agency shorthand — have been closely involved with the rulemaking process, which he generally regards as “pretty solid” and a serious effort to rein in greenhouse gas pollution. But like everyone else, he sees weaknesses and areas that could be improved — and he zeroes in on two.
First, he considers the overall target for reductions short of what Colorado actually needs from the transportation sector. And second, he’s unclear about what mechanisms CDOT will use to ensure that communities already disproportionately impacted by transportation decisions — often low-income areas — won’t continue to suffer in the future.
The CDOT bill and many others passed by the legislature in recent years embed environmental and economic justice into air pollution policy, including by creating offices dedicated to those principles within state agencies.
Advocacy groups demanding a lighter pollution burden on Front Range minority communities have mixed feelings about the progress so far. They are encouraged by having a literal seat at the table during project funding discussions. But there’s still a long way to go, Commerce City activist Lucy Molina said earlier this month, during the last CDOT public hearing on the proposed rules.
Some of the draft rules are great, Molina said, but she didn’t see any of the 10 public hearings advertised on Spanish-speaking radio or TV around metro Denver.
“Thank you for doing the work,” she told CDOT commissioners. “It is lacking, because I still don’t see myself included in it. But there is a climate crisis and I am hopeful that this is the beginning step.”
Smith says he’s encouraged by what he calls “real investments” such as the long-elusive transportation funding package that, while not a full solution, represents a commitment to elements like electric vehicle infrastructure and multimodal transit. And he notes that the proposed enforcement mechanism does seem like it has a lot of promise.
“But we also know,” he added, “that policies, just like complicated programs of any kind, private or public sector, they never work exactly the way you expect them to in the beginning.”
For specific plans that might figure into CDOT’s new role, he defers to members like Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, who can point to a couple big projects in his region that “aren’t on the menu yet,” but could fall under the new mandates.
Cottonwood Pass, otherwise known as County Road 306 in Eagle County, has become a release valve for traffic pressure stemming from the prolonged closures of I-70 in Glenwood Canyon — which this summer could be easily traced to the domino effect of climate change. Wildfire, followed by rain falling on the burn scar and subsequent debris flow, choked off one of the state’s most vital arteries.
But the road over the pass isn’t paved, doesn’t stay open year round and isn’t suited to large truck traffic. Eagle and Garfield counties have talked with mounting urgency about making improvements to the road, though Scherr notes it would most likely be a CDOT project.
Another potential improvement that could be impacted by the new CDOT protocol is an interchange for the Eagle airport off I-70 at Gypsum.
But when Scherr thinks about local projects in the context of implementing a whole new set of standards, and what that needs to look like, he lands on a very minor bit of repaving work the county did in the last couple of years on the oval drive and parking spaces around its government offices.
“None of us even thought about it,” Scherr recalled. “It was just maintenance on county property. And then we realized they totally redid everything with blacktop and a lot of stuff that is fairly climate impactful — and we have all these climate initiatives. It was like, wait, what did we just do? We didn’t even notice this happening.”
The larger lesson, he adds, is that planning transportation projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions needs to be ingrained in the system. And after decades of doing things differently, it’s time to integrate environmental considerations into the process. Every process.
“Whatever our strategic priorities are from a governance perspective at that political level, we haven’t translated into how we actually do things every day as an organization, as a county government,” Scherr said. “That was an epiphany for us.”