Written by Marie Venner 

As many people know, Congress is in the middle of passing gigantic bills dealing with infrastructure.  Republicans and Democrats are assembling a bipartisan coalition to fund transportation infrastructure — mainly highways, though more transit than usual — as part of a $1 trillion package. The question now is what Colorado should do with the influx of funds.

This spring, Denver Health’s Dr. David Mintzer expressed deep concern at Gov. Polis and Colorado’s use of COVID funds to widen highways.  His Colorado Sun piece was titled Freeway expansion is the wrong way to spend Colorado’s COVID-19 relief dollars: When the pandemic is behind us, will we want increased air pollution and GHG? Roadway expansions have increased congestion 144% and resulted in billions of wasted spending, according to a 2020 Transportation for America report. There are better options, including this list, proposed in the spring by an array of statewide and local organizations.

Now is the time to ask questions and provide comments to CDOT before Oct 15th  at dot_rules@state.co.us!  (Feel free to use 350 Colorado’s official talking points for CDOT’s ‘GHG Transportation Planning Standard)

What are some simple straightforward things we may want to note?

First, CDOT and the state Executive Branch should comply with the climate and pollution reduction law passed in 2019, HB 1261.  This is the most basic responsibility – compliance with this compromise law, now statute, that was a long time coming and that promised Coloradans 26% pollution reduction by 2025 — an important minimum to be achieved. The state is not on track to achieving this and state agencies, including CDOT, are kicking the can down the road.  The state is falling short of changing spending patterns in the shorter term.

Second, we can say that public funds should be spent on transportation projects that make air pollution worse, for ethical, public interest, and responsibility reasons as well as basic compliance with the law, as described above.  The Rocky Mountain Institute modeled and documented last May how the state’s proposed investments in widenings would worsen pollution through induced vehicle travel. Some rural roads haven’t been repaved since the 1970s and need repairs; however, widenings or “capacity expansions” deliver 1:1 extra traffic and pollution within 5-10 years. Additional lanes, even HOV, lead to additional vehicle miles traveled and pollution.  A lot of bridge/overpass improvements are to accommodate additional lanes.

It is important to emphasize relative to the above that current plans for spending (the STIP or State Transportation Improvement Plan) need to be re-opened, to apply the Colorado Climate and Pollution Reduction Law as a baseline criteria – projects must help achieve the 26% reduction in air pollution (greenhouse gas emissions) by 2025 and 50% by 2030, including placing in statute an 11% reduction in vehicle miles traveled. Colorado has been kicking the can down the road far too long. Good ideas that don’t achieve 26% by 2025 are not good enough. This is the law, and it is the minimum.  As plans are reconsidered justice for those underserved and over impacted for the past 50+ years should be a top consideration.

We still lack key access and transportation systems for the 20-40% of people who don’t drive, in each community.  Seven decades of transportation investments prioritized and focused on highway expansion, which were given the highest percentages of federal support (80%).  Now, the highway/road system is built out — roads connect!  But it’s hard to efficiently get places on transit and there are few protected bikeways; a comprehensive, connected system does not exist here yet, and protected bikeways could be built for a whole city for the cost of 1 mile of 4 lane highway according to Jennifer Dill’s 2013 research. Equity, as well as efficiency and cost-effective, responsible expenditure of federal and state transportation funds, point to the strong need to focus investment on missing and sub-par aspects of the transportation and access systems these next several years, whether that is transit (frequency, affordability, and a place to sit while waiting), broadband, for walking, or bicycling.

Investments in transit, bike, and walking infrastructure are needed to give people pleasant/comfortable, safe, convenient, protected ways to travelThe Denver Regional Council of Governments’ 2050 MetroVision Plan identified $3.2 billion in bike and walking improvements, plus transit needs (e.g. benches at stops).  These investments, which begin to provide some equity, balance, and service for those underserved and over-impacted by transportation investments to date are essential at this time, for many reasons, including delivering the promised statutory GHG pollution reductions. We need ways to make every new public bus an electric vehicle, whether we finance the difference up front and pay it back in the fuel and maintenance savings, or fully pay for such vehicles and have such savings assist operations’ budgets.

Our Colorado communities lack complete networks of sidewalks and protected bikeways. This means our streets are not safe for those not encased in steel, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Safe, protected, comprehensive networks for all modes are basic and required in other countries, for all streets where cars travel over 25 mph.  Their standards and best practices can be readily applied here.  Even expert bike riders are killed, as we have seen. Our streets are not safe for those not encased in steel, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Denver estimated $1 million per mile for protected bikes lanes, so the city’s bike network of 400-600 miles requires $400-$600M. For comparison, research from Portland indicates that a similar spend would result in just 10 miles of highway. Research shows “if you build it, they will come!”  Further, Denver has found that fully 59% of the population not riding bikes would make some trips that way if protected bikeways were offered.  Safe bike lanes draw riders; this has been shown again and again.

Prioritization of transportation funds, to improve access and reduce inequity to communities impacted by air pollution and underserved by past spending focus on drivers is also an issue of racial justice. It’s time to shift from 7 decades of prioritizing ability to drive fast, spending billions to help this segment of the population get to their destinations a few minutes faster.  Only 43% of the money for this highway infrastructure is covered by the gas tax and various driver and transportation fees.  The rest is paid for out of the general fund, by the larger populace, another inequity.  Those who can’t or don’t drive in every community are left by the wayside and the communities closest to these roads breathe the worst air and suffer the noise, traffic, safety, and health impacts of nearby highways. Access is disrupted as well, as it takes longer to get from one part to another, involves greater hazards, and has taken businesses, houses, neighborhoods and community space. These spaces are made up of a larger proportion of non-white residents, who bear the brunt of these negative health outcomes.

When CDOT talks about equity, they mean equal shares of funding for regions around the state. But there is a lot more to equity; federal funds are supposed to benefit everyone, no matter their race or what form of transportation they use (See USDOT Inclusive Equity Comments).  Please see 350 Colorado’s official talking points for CDOT’s ‘GHG Transportation Planning Standard and sign up to speak at one of CDOT’s public hearings: Oct. 4Oct. 5, and Oct. 7 and/or submit written comments to dot_rules@state.co.us by 5 pm on Oct. 15th.