‘Greenhouse’ found in transportation bill 42 times
Analysis/photos by Allen Best
The social cost of carbon is mentioned twice in the 196-page transportation bill that was introduced into the Colorado’s legislative session in early May. It’s not clear exactly how it will have any more effect than the 55-mph speed limit on one of the interstate highways through Denver. Likely, if this bill passes, it’s part of a bigger puzzle.
But the mention frames transportation differently than ever before in Colorado. Transportation always was about the balance between mobility and the ding to the public treasury, the taxes we pay. This adds a new metric to the discussion, a new dimension of costs.
I wouldn’t advise wading through the 107-word sentence in Senate Bill 21-260 where social cost of carbon is first mentioned. It’s not exactly the sort that Gabriel Garcia Marquez would craft. The gist is that our vehicles pollute, and the pollution has a social cost. It goes on to instruct the methodology of the social cost of carbon be employed, to get an assessment of the environmental costs over time and put into dollar figures. Alone, this does not alter Colorado’s path on transportation, but it does set a new tone.
More telling is “greenhouse,” a word that shows up 42 times in the bill along with 3 mentions of “ozone,” a component greenhouse gas and part of the unhealthy air found along the northern Front Range.
This is a climate bill. It has to be. Transportation will become the No.1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado as the big coal-fired power plants begin closing in 2022. Gina McCarthy, speaking at the recent 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium, called transportation the “big kahuna.” She was speaking from her federal perch as Biden’s climate advisor, but it’s also true in Colorado.
Colorado has taken steps to produce small waves in decarbonization of transportation. Now it needs a big wave, say those involved in transportation efforts, and this is it.
It’s also a congestion bill. I’m guessing I heard the word “congestion” used or alluded to a dozen times when Gov. Jared Polis, legislators, and several others spoke on the interior steps of the Capitol on May 4. Alec Garnett, the House speaker, talked about the ability to immediately tell you’re leaving Utah or Wyoming when entering Colorado. This bill provides for new funding sources that aim to deliver more asphalt and concrete.
The bill is also a compromise, as was best described by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican. He talked about highway expansions he wants to see in Colorado Springs, the widening of Powers Boulevard and more. “These simply cannot be accomplished without a much greater infusion of state and federal dollars,” he said. Suthers, a former state attorney general in Colorado, also said he is a political realist—suggesting compromise is inevitable.
“Transportation can’t be a partisan issue. It’s too important to the quality of life of our residents in Colorado Springs,” he said.
Kevin Priola, a Republican state legislator from the Brighton area, also spoke on behalf of the bill. He’s been a big booster of transportation electrification in Colorado, showing up at a bill signing with Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 near East High School in Denver.
At the Capitol, he spoke about congestion on Interstate 76, now bumper to bumper instead of the occasional car that he saw from his grandfather’s farm when he was a boy. But highway widening cannot be the whole answer. “We can’t just continue to bulldoze mountains and widen lanes,” he said.
Most bills run 10 to 20 pages. This one runs to 196 pages. This is Longs Peak, not Rabbit Mountain outside of Lyons. Or, for those in Durango, Engineer Mountain instead of Perins Peak. It’s sweeping, with a little bit for everybody, most fundamentally new ways to collect revenue. But there’s a distinct shift in direction, a big pivot, if you will.
Are there comparable pivots? Others might point to funding changes of the last 30 years, including 1992, the last time Colorado passed a gas tax increase. A case may be made for 1973, the year when the first bore of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel Complex was opened, followed by the second bore in 1978.
This is from the May 12, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal. To sign up, go to BigPivots.com
I’d make the argument for 1930. That’s the year that the state began plowing snow on Berthoud Pass, a clear recognition of the ascendancy of the automobile. Before, there was no way to drive across the Continental Divide during winter.
Now the pivot is toward electrification and, more broadly yet, decarbonization through a variety of pathways. And, in an odd reversal of my thesis about 1930, it opens the door partway to the idea of a Front Range passenger train. Carl Smith, representing the railway workers’ union, pointed out that rail workers losing their jobs on ferrying coal from mines to markets could transfer their skills to passenger rail.
Elise Jones, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, emphasized electrification of transportation. The bill proposes to put more than $730 million toward electric vehicle solutions. That, she said, represents “one of the biggest investments in transportation electrification by any state anywhere in the country.”
The bill, said Jones, recognizes the scale of the challenge as Colorado seeks to expand the number of electric vehicles – currently 36,000 on state highways – to nearly a million by the end of the decade.
“To support these new EVS, Colorado will need 111 times more charging stations by 2030, and this bill would put a significant down payment on that infrastructure,” she said.
Jones also noted the funding proposed by the bill for all types of electric mobility, from electric bikes and transit to school buses and trucks, but also rideshare vehicles like Uber and Lyft. “It includes money to replace the dirtiest vehicles on the road with zero-emissions buses and delivery trucks.”
Travis Madsen, who runs the transportation program at SWEEP, elaborated on this theme when I talked to him. “I think the bill is an essential piece of achieving Colorado’s climate targets,” he said.
“We need to step up the pace, and this bill will provide some needed juice to get this (transition) moving faster,” he said.
Madsen directed my attention beyond our cars to the fleets of trucks and delivery vehicles. Section 11 of the bill proposes a clean-fleet enterprise within the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment – the agency given the most significant responsibility for creating rules to decarbonize the economy – to provide incentives for the shift in fuels. This new clean-fleet enterprise will be allowed to “impose a delivery fee to be paid” by those getting the goods by delivery of motor vehicle. Nudge, nudge.
A personal aside here: I live on the edge of one of metropolitan Denver’s small but up-and-coming commercial areas. There’s a daily parade of diesel-powered trucks delivering wine, beer, fruits, and all other manner of items to be consumed in the restaurants of Olde Town Arvada. Moreover, I have wheeled around the warehouse districts along I-70 and I-76 on Denver’s east and north side. The size of the fleets of Amazon and others astound me.
But then there’s the issue of how we wheel about on a daily basis. In September 2020 the Denver Regional Council of Governments issued the 2019 Annual Report on Roadway Traffic Congestion in the Denver Region, which noted that vehicles miles traveled per capita had actually declined in 2019, a second straight year. On weekends, the VMT per person was down to 25.4 miles.
Of course, with population growth of 1.4%, there was just as much travel.
Some people seem to think covid will dent this, perhaps permanently. I’m skeptical.
This transportation bill aims to deliver leverage. Section 28 would require the Colorado Department of Transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (think RTD) to “engage in an enhanced level of planning, analysis, community engagement, and monitoring with respect to transportation capacity projects and specifies what that entails and also requires CDOT to conduct a road usage charge study and an autonomous vehicle study.”
To me, this doesn’t say I’ll have to ditch my car. But there’s some jostling here.
Madsen sees this as a crucial section, along with the AQCC rulemaking on transportation emissions that is expected this summer. “I think there’s going to be a lot of push and pull over whether and how Colorado invests in transportation differently to reach the GHG roadmap targets,” he says. He points out that the state roadmap calls for growth in vehicle travel to be cut in half.
In Denver itself, densification is rapidly underway. Some people don’t feel the need to have their own cars. “That will be an important way we can accommodate more people without causing a dramatic increase in everyone driving,” says Madsen.
I’m skeptical—not about the goals, but whether local governments can be nudged into making land use decisions that actually impact greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. I’ve been hearing this conversation for decades with no real gain
A couple of weeks ago I drove to the western precincts of Arvada amid the rolling hills just short of Highway 93, the road between Golden and Boulder. These huge projects — Candelas and Leyden Ranch—have wonderful open spaces and uplifting views, exactly what people from elsewhere expect in Colorado. (If you don’t mind some wind occasionally).
These housing projects are also absolutely car centric. They’re VMT disasters. In this, they are more typical than not among the 40,000 to 50,000 houses being built in Colorado annually, the number of which have been going up during the last 4 or 5 years.
The bill got its first legislative hearing on Monday, dragging on for 7.5 hours in the Senate Finance Committee before being passed, with amendments, on a 4-3 party-line vote. So much for Sutherland’s pitch for bipartisanship.
The social cost of carbon mention remained intact. Colorado first began using that metric as a result of 2019 legislation, which requires the Public Utilities Commission to evaluate electrical generation projects with the federal social cost of carbon, which was then $46 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. This tilts the table against coal generation, although as a practical matter, the table is heavily tilted toward lower cost renewables. Two other bills being considered by legislators this session would also add social cost of carbon to the PUC matrix when evaluating programs that would reduce natural gas use in buildings and elsewhere.
But the practical effect of social cost of carbon in the transportation bill?
In response to my questions, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the goal of the social cost of carbon is to provide “a consistent approach across relevant agencies. We are ensuring that we are doing cost benefit analyses and accounting using an appropriate social cost of carbon and making sure in multiple pieces of legislation that we use the same social cost of carbon at the PUC, C-DOT, CDPHE, etc.”
Madsen—who took Toor’s job at SWEEP when Toor joined the Polis administration in early 2019—said he thinks the practical effect will depend on a future rulemaking at the Air Quality Control Commission. That may occur later this year.
“The social cost of carbon will help illustrate the value of reducing emissions (either through transportation and land-use planning to reduce overall vehicle travel, or through electrification measures),” he said.
Have a different take on this transportation bill? Happy to publish other viewpoints. [email protected]