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CDOT aims to be “at the forefront” with greenhouse gas rules that would have far-reaching impact

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CDOT aims to be “at the forefront” with greenhouse gas rules that would have far-reaching impact

The Colorado Department of Transportation for decades has faced down activists and environmentalists trying to derail highway expansions that promised to fill the air with more vehicle exhaust.

So it struck a jarring note at a public hearing last month when a Weld County elected official lodged a new kind of complaint against CDOT — that the department’s leaders had become “preoccupied with cleaning the air.”

Times have changed as state transportation leaders try to force a reckoning with the fact that vehicle travel on roads is among the heaviest contributors to the heat-trapping gases that play a key role in warming the Earth’s climate. Proposed new greenhouse gas rules would transform the way transportation planning happens in Colorado by requiring CDOT itself and planners in its five major metropolitan regions to meet targets for reduced emissions from passenger vehicles.

If adopted this fall, the first targets would come in 2025 in the areas of the Front Range with the foulest air, including metro Denver, with targets for the rest of the regions starting in 2030.

Achieving those reductions would mean more heavy scrutiny for highway expansions and major new roads while diverting significant money to public transit projects and other alternatives to driving. CDOT’s analysts have projected that as billions of dollars is invested in transportation in coming decades, a quarter to a third would shift to multimodal projects, or those that reduce the need for cars.

“Colorado’s now going to put themselves at the forefront of what is clearly going to be … a contemporary, climate-conscious approach to transportation planning,” said Adie Tomer, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

But as advocates for climate action support the proposal — and push to beef it up even further — elected officials in some areas have voiced concerns about less spending on roads in a state with a fast-growing population. Other critics say the web of new rules would be unwieldy, particularly the need to offset the climate impact of needed road expansions.

“One of the concerns is, is this going to increase the cost of building a new section of highway by 10%, by 20%, by 50%? We don’t know,” said state Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican who questions how involved CDOT should get in climate policy, given Colorado’s extensive backlog of road needs. “I think that’s something we need to drill into before they get too far along on this.”

CDOT’s proposal would mark the culmination of its evolution from a highway department to a more complex role, in which it grapples with the climate impact of the same road system it’s charged with maintaining and expanding.

Its first major foray into new rules could be far-reaching. CDOT leaders even hope to nudge more local governments into changing their zoning codes and engaging in more urban-focused planning that results in shorter commutes and better-connected communities where driving isn’t required for so many people.

Tomer said that in the transportation sector, now the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions, CDOT’s planning-focused rules stand out among U.S. states that are experimenting with a wide gamut of climate policies.

CDOT’s broader mission has resulted from climate mandates issued by Gov. Jared Polis and the Democratic-controlled legislature in recent years. The planning proposal, released in August, is rooted in Colorado’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, the Polis administration’s plan to squelch those emissions from 2005 levels by at least 90% by 2050.

Senate Bill 260, a $5.4 billion transportation-funding bill signed into law earlier this year, directed CDOT and the metropolitan planning organizations for Denver and the northern Front Range to more fully account for climate consequences in their transportation plans, with initial updates due in about a year.

CDOT’s planning strategy is one of several potential policies and factors that state leaders say will reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades. For one thing, new vehicles’ fuel efficiency likely will continue improving.

But the greatest impact, by far, likely will come from the widescale adoption of electric cars and other types of zero- or low-emission vehicles, including by the trucking industry.

Shoshana Lew, CDOT’s executive director, and other officials say that while electric vehicles may play a much bigger role ultimately, but Colorado can’t wait until 2040 or 2050 for enough of them to replace gas guzzlers — it must begin addressing poor air quality now. And state projections for the conversion to cleaner vehicles still leave Colorado short of meeting its climate goals for transportation.

That’s where the planning rules come in.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Cars, trucks and campers heading westbound brake as they come into big curves while heading down Floyd Hill along Interstate 70 on Oct. 4, 2021, near Idaho Springs.

Colorado rule goes further than some states

Colorado’s approach draws on the experiences of a growing number of states in setting transportation-centric climate goals — notably California, Massachusetts and other coastal states. CDOT’s proposal goes further in some respects, including the use of an enforcement mechanism.

The governor-appointed Colorado Transportation Commission would be able to restrict some state and federal transportation money for use only on climate-friendly projects if CDOT or a planning region fails to meet its reduction target.

“The rule absolutely makes it possible to do the important capacity projects,” insisted Lew, the CDOT director.

But major projects that are considered “regionally significant” would require a thorough review of their impact, likely requiring offsets in the form of climate-friendly additions or separate mitigation projects elsewhere within a region. Those could include dedicated bus lanes or pathways for walking and biking. Think of the Regional Transportation District’s Flatiron Flyer buses that zip between Denver and Boulder using the express toll lanes added to U.S. 36 several years back, though RTD has reduced service during the pandemic.

Still, the Transportation Commission would have the authority to grant waivers for certain road projects if they’re seen as vital but offer insufficient ways to offset the increased driving and emissions that are projected to result.

CDOT’s project pipeline includes potential expansions of more sections for Interstate 25, both up north and in Denver, as well as for Interstate 270. Also on the drawing board is a fix for Interstate 70’s notorious bottleneck and tight curves going westbound down Floyd Hill in the mountains.

CDOT is mulling potential mitigations for all of those, Lew said, including better linking its Bustang intercity bus service with local bus routes at new stations along I-25.  As it plans out the Floyd Hill project, budgeted at $600 million to $700 million, it’s creating a “micro-transit” service called Pegasus that will run smaller shuttles and vans on I-70 between Avon and Denver. Pegasus vehicles will be able to use CDOT’s express toll lanes near Idaho Springs.

1634043474 140 CDOT aims to be at the forefront with greenhouse gas

Kelsey Brunner, Denver Post file

Bustang driver Michelle Norton begins her 5 p.m. route at the Belleview stop in Denver on Friday, July 26, 2019. The intercity bus service has been among CDOT’s most prominent multimodal initiatives.

Under the proposal, the metropolitan planning organizations in Denver and the northern Front Range, which already are under federal pressure to reduce pollution because they exceed ozone standards, would face the first state greenhouse gas reduction benchmarks at the decade’s midpoint.

The Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction areas would join in 2030, with new targets tailored to each area (and statewide) coming again in 2040 and 2050.

The greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030 are the steepest, proposed at roughly 7% below baseline projections of emissions that CDOT’s modelers created by estimating the future impact of the building of transportation projects currently included in regional and state plans, along with population growth.

Statewide, when CDOT’s baseline projection for 2030 is that vehicles will emit 21.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gas, the reduction target would result in 1.5 million fewer metric tons of gas blowing into the air. Though small, CDOT says the impact would be significant — akin to removing 300,000 cars from roads that year.

Cars and trucks make their way ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Cars and trucks make their way both eastbound, left, and westbound, right, near Floyd Hill along the I-70 corridor on Oct. 4, 2021, in Genesee.

Seeking “strict greenhouse gas limits”

CDOT is still collecting public input on the proposal and expects to extend the Oct. 15 comment deadline for another 30 days. It plans to release a revised proposal soon. The Transportation Commission could vote on the final draft as soon as its Nov. 18 meeting.

Environmental advocates who are used to fighting CDOT’s highway projects have embraced the thrust of the proposal, though the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups are pushing for even tougher provisions. Those include more limits on waivers and the setting of explicit reduction targets for vehicle miles traveled, a measure of overall traffic volume. They also want more provisions that would improve quality of life in communities heavily affected by highway pollution.

“CDOT’s draft rule doesn’t address a number of important issues, but we’re hopeful that the final rule will include strict greenhouse gas limits,” said Becky English, the Colorado Sierra Club’s transportation committee chair. For years, she was a vocal opponent of CDOT’s still-underway Central 70 project in Denver.

The Denver Regional Council of Governments largely has viewed the proposal positively, too, in part because its planning had begun to set greenhouse gas reduction goals.

But the reception has been cooler in more conservative pockets of the Front Range and the Western Slope.

Weld County Commissioner Scott James spoke up at the first of several public hearings on Sept. 17, criticizing CDOT’s fixation on greenhouse gases and suggesting local officials were better suited to address air pollution.

“As someone elected to represent the more than 330,000 people in one of the state’s fastest-growing counties, I must ask if (CDOT’s proposal) is irresponsible mission creep at least — or, at most, a violation of statute,” James said, referring to the state law authorizing the department. “CDOT’s mission does not include emission controls and regulations.”

That was true just a few years ago, but Democrats in control at the state level undeniably have assigned it climate responsibility in more recent legislation.

1634043474 465 CDOT aims to be at the forefront with greenhouse gas

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Wood supports have been placed as a temporary fix under the highway along the I-70 corridor at Floyd Hill on Oct. 4, 2021, near Idaho Springs.

Grand aims and uncertainty

CDOT’s proposal comes with grand aims — as well as uncertainty about whether it will have as big of an impact as its supporters hope.

CDOT officials acknowledge the usual “multimodal” options — more transit, more pedestrian walkways and bikeways, and myriad new programs — might not be enough on their own. So they also hope to spur local governments of all sizes to consider zoning code changes that would cluster new housing near urban and job centers, potentially linking more people to transit and shortening car commutes.

The stakes are high, one recent report suggests.

A 2020 analysis by DRCOG, the metro Denver planning organization, of several potential planning scenarios illustrated just how difficult it will be to reduce driving and traffic delays as the region grows by a projected 1.1 million people in the next 30 years. Only significant changes in urban planning — along the lines above — coupled with extensive expansions in the metro transit network would actually achieve those goals, the report says.

Other scenarios that assumed little change in the area’s sprawling growth patterns came up short even if transit or other alternatives received heavy investment.

“I don’t think you can have a conversation about reducing vehicle miles traveled without having a conversation about land use,” said Doug Rex, DRCOG’s executive director. “The two are inter-connected, especially for a region that’s growing as quickly as we are. … From a practical standpoint, it’s going to force a conversation about land use and how we house these individuals.”

But land-use decisions get made by cities and counties, and they often get wrapped in emotional debate. Some regional planners have pointed out to CDOT that such decisions are beyond their control, though CDOT says their organizations can spark conversations or establish incentives.

Other critics argue housing density, even if it’s created with the best of intentions, often results in less affordability in practice. One skeptic suggested that CDOT tread carefully.

“Obviously they have to be concerned about greenhouse gases and the impact of what they’re doing on that,” said Robert W. Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. “But it worries me to see (CDOT) getting into mitigation measures that relate to things like housing and land use. I don’t think that’s their expertise.”

Poole cited past research that suggests the climate benefits from CDOT’s planning-intensive approach would be marginal at best, since they rely on changing people’s driving habits. He sees greater promise in supporting the adoption of electric vehicles, as Colorado also is doing with some of the money from SB-260, and building more toll lanes to manage highway traffic.

“My point I’m trying to make in some of my work is that we need to be making these types of plans not based on yesterday’s cars and highways, but on tomorrow’s cars and highways,” he said.

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West Siders call for school investment after district drops Montessori program

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West Siders call for school investment after district drops Montessori program

In a virtual meeting Thursday with St. Paul Public Schools leaders, residents of the city’s West Side bemoaned last-minute changes to the district’s schools consolidation plan that figure to take scores of students out of the neighborhood’s two elementary schools.

Superintendent Joe Gothard’s “Envision SPPS” was supposed to strengthen West Side’s Cherokee Heights and Riverview schools and establish strong ties to nearby Humboldt middle and high schools.

The struggling Montessori program at Cherokee Heights would move to J.J. Hill in the Summit-University neighborhood; students in Riverview’s community program would slide over to Cherokee Heights; and Riverview’s Spanish dual-language immersion program would get an influx of students as Wellstone school closed.

But in response to an outcry from Wellstone parents, the school board last month voted to keep that school open. Students wouldn’t be moving into the West Side, after all, but the Montessori program still is moving out.

The changes, which take effect this fall, could leave the two West Side schools with fewer than 400 students — roughly one-third of their combined capacity.

“I don’t see how this is helping when it’s directly taking families away,” West Side parent Shannon Johnson said Thursday.

Community member Carlo Franco said the consolidation plan went through a “confusing process,” and the decision to take students out of the West Side came without warning.

“We need to be involved in decisions, especially when we’re talking about closing whole programs,” he said.

LIST OF DEMANDS

Franco presented a list of demands, which include investments in West Side schools, real community engagement and no program changes until there’s a long-term plan to minimize disruption.

Gothard said the administration can’t reverse the board’s vote, and the district already is planning for next year. Besides the West Side program changes, five schools across the city are closing.

But Gothard said a potential preschool expansion — funded either at the city, state or federal level — would address some of the child care barriers keeping some families from enrolling on the West Side.

Some parents said their schools need before- and after-school care run by the district, but Chief Operations Officer Jackie Turner said there hasn’t been nearly enough parent interest to cover the costs of running Discovery Club. She said it’s possible the Boys and Girls Club will start taking 4-year-olds, and she promised to work with private child care providers to find options for families.

Turner also said the district has added another preschool class at Riverview this fall to help the school grow its enrollment. She said they could do the same for Cherokee Heights if there’s enough interest.

MOVES AREN’T ‘FOR US’

One parent said she settled on the West Side in part because the Montessori method worked well for her children. She said she doesn’t understand why the program is leaving next year.

Turner said Montessori programs cost about twice as much as general education, and the program at Cherokee Heights hasn’t attracted enough students.

“With the amount of money that it takes to run a Montessori program, we cannot have an enrollment that is not sustainable,” she said.

Turner estimated that half of Cherokee Heights families want to preserve Montessori, while the rest are happy to see it go.

Franco said it’s nothing new for the district to mistreat the West Side. The community had to rally to save Humboldt High School some 50 years ago, he said, and the surprise 2012 announcement that Roosevelt would reopen as Riverview came “without community dialogue.”

He offered a slogan he said encapsulates what West Siders have been feeling since the board vote: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

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Washington University participating in Moderna’s omicron-specific booster trial

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Washington University participating in Moderna’s omicron-specific booster trial

ST. LOUIS — Moderna has started its mid-stage study on its new booster that specifically targets the omicron variant, and St. Louis is part of that study.

The Washington University School of Medicine is participating in the Phase 2 clinical trial of the new booster. The trial started Wednesday and is enrolling 20 to 30 people who are 18 and older.

Those people must have already received two to three doses of the Moderna vaccine. Each participant will receive the new omicron booster and see if it gives them a stronger immune response.

Dr. Rachael Presti is Washington University’s infectious disease physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She’s also leading the trial. She said people should participate to be part of medical innovation.

“The idea behind this is if you can get a booster that broadens the immune response so that it covers omicron better. And hopefully, even if omicron goes away future variants of the virus are going to be building mutations on the current omicron variant, not on the original variant.”

Washington University will follow participants for a year, but Moderna is hoping to have enough information that the variant booster might be available in around three months.

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‘Ben would be so proud’: Mom of fallen St. Louis firefighter thankful for tributes

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‘Ben would be so proud’: Mom of fallen St. Louis firefighter thankful for tributes

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis community is making sure a firefighter who was killed two weeks ago is not forgotten. A series of tributes are in the works to honor Benjamin Polson.

Polson, 33, was killed while battling a vacant house fire in north St. Louis on Jan. 13.

The St. Louis Hero Network, a local organization, is working with Missouri State Rep. David Gregory to establish a memorial sign.

The sign would be similar to the one honoring fallen North County Police Cooperative Officer Michael Langsdorf. That sign is on display on I-55 at Butler Hill Road.

“I just know that Ben would be so proud. He was such a proud person, and he wanted to do such a good job at being a fireman,” Susan Polson, Benjamin Polson’s mother, said.

If lawmakers give the green light to the sign, the Polson family would weigh in on the location. The honor is a bright spot during what has been a painful past two weeks for the Polson family. Susan, her son, and daughter Rebecca were extremely close.

“We were best friends. My daughter says she’s his best friend…I say I’m his best friend,” she said.

The three even lived close to each other, just minutes apart. Rebecca, her fiancé, Susan, and Ben saw each other on a regular basis, planned outings, and vacations.

Susan Polson flipped through pictures of her son, from his early days as a hockey player to more recent times, when he lived in Colorado.

Polson returned to St. Louis to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a St. Louis firefighter. Susan Polson said her son was passionate about his job, and helping others.

“He really cared – he really did care about our city – he wanted to leave the world a better place,” she said.

The St. Louis Hero Network has raised more than $500,000 for first responders and veterans in the last three years.

Its founder and director, Charlie Metzner, is not only a firefighter – he happens to be Polson’s cousin.

“It wasn’t just my family. It was a brother in the fire service that worked in the same fire department that I worked for. And how extremely proud I was that he chose a life of service,” Metzner said. “Just like his funeral -he could have done anything he wanted to do. But he chose a life of service.” Just like his dad. To serve and protect the community he grew up in. He was a south city kid just like me.”

Thanks to a donation, T-shirts bearing Polson’s name and Engine House 13 – where he was stationed – will be provided to all members of the St. Louis Fire Department and the Polson family.

Metzner is also eager about the prospect of a plaque in each firehouse, and later a memorial dedicated to Polson. Susan Polson said she is honored by all the tributes, and expressed thanks to those who have stepped up to support the family.

“Thank you so much. Everything you’ve done for my son. And our family – and for all the future firefighters. And all the young men and women that give their service, to help other people,” she said.

For more information on the St. Louis Hero Network, including how to make a donation, visit https://stlheronetwork.co

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