highways to hell

One State Is Showing Us How to End America’s Addiction to Highway Expansion

Colorado passed a first-in-the-nation rule requiring new transportation projects to prove they can reduce emissions. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At the last meeting of the year of Colorado’s transportation commission, sitting in a bedroom in front of an array of ornately wrapped Christmas presents, chair Kathy Hall introduced the final motion as “the biggest thing this commission has ever been asked to do.” After a brief and lively discussion, 10 out of the 11 commissioners in attendance had approved a new rule requiring the state’s Department of Transportation to direct its dollars to projects proven to lower greenhouse-gas emissions. “CDOT should be applauded for taking this big step,” said Danny Katz, executive director of CoPIRG, one of the state’s larger environmental groups. “It’s absolutely critical in a state where transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions, including ozone pollution.” As money from a trillion-dollar federal infrastructure bill begins to siphon into state transportation departments, the timing is also fortunate, as Colorado could serve as a model for how the entire country might begin to wean itself off a half-century of freeway-expansion addiction. In this one state, at least, every new transportation project will now need to come with a detailed model showing exactly how emissions will be reduced.

“If they don’t meet the target, they have to come up with a mitigation plan,” says Boulder-based transportation strategist Martha Roskowski, which could mean shifting trips away from cars by adding bike lanes or boosting transit service. The rule is a good step forward, she agrees, even if it requires more work to ensure benefits reach the communities devastated by previous highway construction, and although it won’t necessarily eliminate driving-centered projects — CDOT still has several road-widening projects in its ten-year plan — it will definitely deprioritize the biggest ones. “I don’t think we’ll see them axing highway projects,” Roskowski says, “but I think we’ll see them getting pushed back.” The rule also might lead the state to get extremely creative about using highway funding. For example, CDOT operates the popular and successful Bustang system, which runs intercity bus service to tourist and recreation destinations, offering traffic relief along congested roadways like the I-70 corridor that connects Denver to local ski areas. That program, and others like it, could be expanded under this new policy.

The vote comes at an extremely uneasy moment for transportation policy, with news this week that the Build Back Better Act, and all its climate mitigation provisions, might be delayed or gutted even more just as a whopper of an infrastructure bill gave states an unprecedented amount of money for roads. This week, the Federal Highway Administration announced that $52.5 billion will go to highway funding just in 2022, 20 percent more than states got this year. (About $350 billion of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is allocated for highway projects over five years.) Based solely on the number of legislators cheering the announcement by promising to widen or lengthen highways, it’s hard not to imagine those billions of dollars being funneled directly into more lanes, more miles, more emissions.

One big difference in Colorado, says Darryl Young, director of the sustainable cities program at the Summit Foundation, is CDOT’s executive director Shoshana Lew, the rare state transportation leader who knows expanding highway infrastructure is untenable. “If we had 50 Shoshana Lews we’d be in a much better place in the United States,” he says. “You cannot work on climate without examining how you reduce the amount of driving — not end driving, because there are a lot of places driving is necessary. But how do you reduce the number of places that you need to get to by driving, through either walking, biking, or transit? You cannot get there by just electrifying everything.” And every added mile of highway is guaranteed to induce more driving, more cars, more pollution, and more traffic, despite the ongoing proclamations of state transportation departments to the contrary, says Carter Rubin, a sustainable-transportation expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who collaborated with the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute on a calculator that will be used to quantify the impact of proposed highway projects. In addition to reducing emissions, Colorado’s rule will start to correct the historic imbalance in infrastructure investments that has favored driving above all else, says Rubin. “You can get anywhere in the state in a car, but if you choose other ways you have a fraction of access to jobs and opportunities and nature because we haven’t invested in those modes.”

In Colorado, this shift may also mean funds may be diverted from expanding interstates into transforming arterial roads. The extra-wide surface streets in cities and towns are, in some cases, just as dangerous, polluting, and dividing as highways, says Katz. “The same guidance that has been used to design interstates to move cars and trucks quickly are used for these main streets. They’re unsafe for people walking, not conducive for transit and biking, and often part of the high-injury network.” Colorado already has a head start on this, too, with its Safer Main Streets initiative, which designated highway money to make the business districts of smaller cities safer and more pleasant. Sometimes that means utterly basic improvements, like adding the sidewalks the roads didn’t have when they were first built.

In passing this rule, Colorado is leaps and bounds ahead of even the most progressive states when it comes to transit and climate. California, often praised for its climate action, is now severely lagging in implementation; a new report out this week estimated that it probably won’t hit its 2050 greenhouse-gas reduction targets until 2111. Just weeks ago, Governor Gavin Newsom enthusiastically announced that expanding the 15 freeway to Las Vegas would “tackle congestion.” (Spoiler: It won’t.) Massachusetts also has some promising greenhouse-gas reduction efforts that should get a boost from the recent election of Michelle Wu, the T-riding mayor of Boston who ran on transportation reform. But that’s only three states out of 50. Nearly everywhere else, it’s highways, highways, highways.

Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, to his credit, has singled out highway expansion, and particularly its destruction of urban neighborhoods, as uniquely harmful. A memo from his highway department yesterday “gently” urged states to consider fixing existing ones before building new, and analysis on the infrastructure bill out yesterday shows that a “fix it first” mentality alone could bend the curve enough on greenhouse-gas reductions to change the country’s transportation fate. Under Buttigieg’s leadership, the feds have even intervened at the state level, putting a freeze on projects like the planned I-45 expansion in Houston that would wipe out several low-income communities. This week, U.S. DOT announced that additional money will be released in 2022 for “reconnecting as many as 20 communities by removing portions of interstates.” Getting rid of them could undo some of the damage wrought upon those neighborhoods. But we also have to stop building highways in the first place.

One State Shows Us How to End the U.S. Addiction to Highways