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Crews pump concrete into new lanes of the I25 South Gap project, between Monument and Castle Rock, in 2021. A new Colorado Law will put a carbon-use label on highway construction materials as a way to further cut greenhouse gases. (Colorado Department of Transportation)

Colorado cities and state agencies planning big road projects must now design them to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide alternative transportation modes for the public, in a historic change of mission passed Thursday by Colorado Department of Transportation commissioners. 

The expected 10 to 1 vote has been hailed by conservation groups and some local officials as a key acknowledgement of auto transportation’s role in pollution, while other counties and some business groups fear it will starve safety and capacity projects for popular roadways. 

The new set of operating rules for CDOT dictates how the agency and local partners will spend billions of dollars in new transportation funding passed in the 2021 legislative session. Regional planning agencies like the Denver Regional Council of Governments must design highway and transit projects where modeling shows they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by millions of tons in coming years. 

CDOT will now track vehicle miles traveled (VMT) overall in Colorado, an indicator of how much fossil fuel is being burned for transportation. If road projects don’t prove they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cut local air pollution and bend the curve on vehicle miles traveled, project planners will have to shift more money from traditional highway construction to promote transit, bike lanes, walking and other alternative modes. 

Fulfilling the lofty goals will require regional governments to seek far more control over land use planning than they have customarily held, in order to place jobs and shopping closer to homes and cut vehicle use over time. 

Some commissioners, conservation groups and many Democratic state leaders hailed the change in CDOT culture as a core part of mandates that Colorado cut greenhouse gas emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. A revolution in land use and highway planning must combine with overall electrification of the vehicle fleet if Colorado hopes to reach those goals, they argue. 

Environmental advocates considered it a “must-pass rule,” and praised CDOT for regulations showing “they have a role when it comes to climate, and when it comes to air quality, and they’re really stepping up here,” said Matt Frommer, senior transportation analyst for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. 

Commissioners who supported the measure said it struck the right balance between joining the greenhouse gas fight and still leaving money for projects to improve highway safety or expand vehicle bottlenecks around the state. Environment groups wanted tough caps and ratcheted cuts to VMT, while some counties wanted less emphasis on transit for car-reliant regions that don’t have transportation alternatives. 

“It’s a compromise. It’s a place to start. It’s an important step forward to acknowledge transportation impacts on greenhouse gas pollution,” said Commissioner Karen Stuart, during a final Wednesday workshop discussing the last draft of the rules. 

“It’s urgent to get going. We can’t afford to wait another day, another month, another year,” Commissioner Kathleen Bracke said. The balanced rules, Bracke said, “will set us on that path to have simultaneously a strong economy and a strong environment.”

Commissioner Gary Beedy was a rare voice of dissent Thursday, saying that while he supported many of the goals, he would vote “no” to oppose the “heavy handed” nature of some of the plan. He said he wanted to represent “segments of our state that do not support the way this rule is being implemented and done.”

Advocacy groups backing the plan have also emphasized the rules’ focus on equity for disproportionately impacted communities around major transit corridors, and state legislation requiring new projects to mitigate pollution and economic impacts. 

A coalition of chambers of commerce and northern Colorado officials made a last-minute effort to change the draft rules this week, issuing a letter to commissioners warning the mitigation would be far more expensive than projected and that commuting workers would suffer. 

“Left unaddressed, traffic flow will be impeded, safety will be compromised, and air quality will be impacted from heightened emissions from congestion,” said the letter, signed by the Fort Collins and Greeley chambers of commerce, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and many others. 

Their letter attacked the cost benefit analysis used to support the rule draft, saying the $4.5 billion in projected new costs will actually be close to $19 billion. 

Other local and state officials expressed more support, calling the changes for Colorado’s transportation sector long overdue. 

“It is a national model for how to take serious steps that hold the administrators of public transportation dollars accountable for providing citizens with the options they need to make a cleaner transportation system possible,” Colorado Senate Democrats said in a support letter. 

Few officials involved in the 11 public forums and dozens of planning meetings for the rules over the past year are willing to make predictions on how the greenhouse gas cuts will impact specific projects. Highways will need more bus and HOV lanes, and more “intermodal” connections to bus stops, bike lanes and safe walkways. CDOT will continue expanding its role as a statewide bus agency, based on the success of its popular Bustang and Snowstang transit routes, said CDOT director Shoshana Lew. 

Lew is also adamant the rules will not block long-planned improvements to bottlenecked or crumbling corridors, such as rebuilding I-270 through north metro Denver, untangling Floyd Hill on I-70, or expanding remaining four-lane sections of I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins. On Floyd Hill, for example, CDOT is planning a “micro-transit” service taking advantage of express lanes. 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver