Transformational. Historic. Once in a generation. That’s how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been framed by leaders across the country, including here in Colorado.

Molly McKinley, left; Katara Burrola, center; and Laura Hickernell

Now that funding is starting to be dispersed to Colorado, if we aren’t intentional and proactive, this funding could maintain the status quo, or even worse, increase the serious, negative impacts our current transportation system has on public health, access to economic opportunity, and the environment.

Colorado’s Department of Transportation is set to receive federal funding and plug it into existing avenues, like CDOT’s 10-Year Plan, which reads like a menu of transportation proposals where highway projects are the entrees and public transit, biking, and walking improvements are side orders.

Doubling down on highway projects will only make life worse for Coloradans, especially for poor communities and communities of color which are most heavily impacted by air pollution, burdensome household transportation costs, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

For too long, we’ve widened Colorado’s highways on the misguided assumption that “one more lane will fix it.” The results? More driving, more fatalities on our roads, and more toxic air pollution.

The benefits from the historic investment in transit under the new federal infrastructure law will be overshadowed by the negative impacts of expanded highways unless we choose a different way forward — one that will not only decrease the negative impacts of our current transportation system, but also improve Coloradans’ quality of life and repair communities who have long taken on the heavy burden of these environmental hazards. 

We applaud CDOT’s recently adopted Greenhouse Gas Pollution Standard Rule and are hopeful that it will make it easier for government agencies to make decisions that represent a fundamental shift in our transportation system to meet the needs of the moment and the needs of the future—equity, climate, and safety.

We have a few ideas about how Colorado can do that. 

First, Colorado should ensure that every dollar that is eligible to be used for public transit projects is allocated for it. Programs like the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, Highway Safety Improvement Program can fund transit projects and, under limited circumstances, even the National Highway Performance Program can be used for transit.

If we are going to meet the transportation needs of a growing state, increase access to opportunities for low income Coloradans, reduce the number of traffic fatalities and achieve our commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we must use as much funding as allowable for public transit. Funding new highways moves us in the wrong direction and prevents us from being able to meet those needs and improve the lives of Coloradans.

Next, even though it is not mandated by the infrastructure law, Colorado should commit to a fix-it-first approach with any funding spent on highways.

According to CDOT, more than 100 of Colorado’s bridges are in disrepair. We must first ensure that our existing infrastructure is safe for people— regardless of their choice of transportation. Spending money on new infrastructure while bridges remain in a questionable state of repair — all while people walking and biking along CDOT’s main streets experience unsafe conditions — would be irresponsible, if not negligent. 

Lastly, Gov. Polis, CDOT and state leaders should explore opportunities to best capitalize on the momentum from this infusion of federal funding. For this to really be transformational for transportation in Colorado, leaders should consider opportunities at the state level such as providing consistent operating funding for transit agencies and dedicated funding for Indigenous communities to help them build expertise related to transportation and land use so they can take advantage of these new investments. If Indigenous communities are to have a chance to be meaningful contributors to any kind of dialogue with government officials, they first need some relief from the consuming worries of poverty.

The federal infrastructure package includes historic amounts of funding, but where it is spent is what will determine whether it’s truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity, or whether it’s just more of the same. We’re calling on Gov. Polis and CDOT to think beyond the status quo with this funding. We must get this right in Colorado. Our future depends on it.

Molly McKinley, of Denver, is the policy director of Denver Streets Partnership. Katara Burrola, of Denver, is environmental justice organizer for Mi Familia Vota. Laura Hickernell, of Niwot, is Colorado organizing manager of Mothers Out Front.

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