The highways in Colorado, one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, are frequently clogged with suburban workers driving into Denver, skiers heading high into the Rocky Mountains and trucks rumbling across the Interstates.
A Western frontier state with an affinity for the open road and Subaru Outbacks, Colorado’s traditional answer to traffic congestion could be summed up inTwo words: More asphalt.
Research shows that people drive more when roads are widened and new roads are built. Colorado is one of the few car-dominated states that is reconsidering road building as global warming concerns mount.
Colorado adopted a unique climate change regulation in December. This will encourage transportation planners across the state to shift funding away highway expansions and towards projects that reduce vehicle pollution such as buses or bike lanes.
It’s a big change for Colorado, which is reeling from devastating wildfires and droughts fueled by global warming and where Denver and the Front Range often exceed federal ozone pollution standards, partly from vehicle exhaust. Governor. Jared Polis, a Democrat from California, has set the state’s goal to reduce transportation emissions by 40% below 2005 levels by 2030.
The rule marks a new front inThe fight against climate change. Increasingly, experts warn that if states want to slash planet-warming emissions from cars and trucks, it won’t be enough to sell more electric vehicles. They’ll also have to encourage people to drive less.
In a nation built around the automobile, that’s not easy.
“It’s a tough shift for us,” said Shoshana Lew, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Transportation. “Colorado is very different from a place like New York City that already has lots of transit. But if we want to clean up our transportation system as quickly as possible, we need to try everything we can.”
More Roads, More Emissions
Over the coming decade, the decisions that Colorado and other states make about how many new roads to build could have major consequences for America’s ability to tackle climate change. Transportation is the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases, producing 29 percent of emissions, and has been stubbornly difficult to clean up.
The new $1 trillion infrastructure bill invests billions inClimate-friendly programs such as electric car chargers or public transit are available. The money is also used to fund highways for $273 billion over five years. There are no strings attached. Georgetown Climate Center’s analysis found that this money could significantly increase carbon emissions if states continue to add highway lanes.
Already, signs are emerging that even states with ambitious climate goals, like Washington, Illinois, and Nevada, may be looking to use federal funds for expanding roadways. This could include adding lanes to an already congested section on the Eisenhower Freeway in Chicago. One-third of highway dollars spent by states in 2019 was spent on new road capacity, which is roughly $19.3 trillion. The rest was spent on repairs.
“This is a major blind spot for politicians who say they care about climate change,”Kevin DeGood is the director of infrastructure policy for the Center for American Progress. This think tank is liberal. “Everyone gets that oil pipelines are carbon infrastructure. But new highways are carbon infrastructure, too. Both lock in place 40 to 50 years of emissions.”
Environmentalists believe that the core problem is a phenomenon known simply as “induced traffic demand.”States build new roads and add lanes to congested highways to increase traffic. Instead of reducing congestion, more cars fill the space.
Induced Demand explains why Texas widened Katy Freeway inHouston to more that 20 lanes in2011 congestion cost $2.8 billion. It returned to its former levels in a few years.
“It’s not always intuitive to people, but the economic logic is pretty simple: If you make driving easier, people will do more of it,”Susan Handy, a transportation expert from the University of California, Davis, helped to create a calculator that showed how highway expansions can increase carbon emissions. inDifferent cities
‘A Monumental Undertaking’
Some Colorado communities are wary that traditional road building will be abandoned. Weld County lies north of Denver. This rural region is home to many ranches and wells where homebuilding has exploded. in recent years, along with traffic. Local officials are calling for new roads, with a proposal of $300 million to add…
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