Rule requires governments to align transportation infrastructure investments with climate goals

Colorado adopts new rule to cut pollution from transportation

December 16, 2021

Travis Madsen, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) |


[DENVER, CO] – The Colorado Transportation Commission voted 10-1 today to approve a new rule to fight climate change by making smarter investments in the state’s transportation system. The rule applies to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the state’s five Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which oversee transportation infrastructure planning across much of the state. It sets pollution reduction targets and requires the state and local governments to plan to achieve them.

Clean transportation advocates expect that the rule will increase investment in more efficient and less polluting modes of transportation, including transit, biking and walking — while also promoting more transportation-efficient land use patterns to shorten travel distances between housing, jobs, and other services. Along with vehicle electrification, these tools will be essential to successfully cut state carbon pollution in half by 2030, as required by House Bill 19-1261.

“Colorado has been building communities around cars for decades,” said Travis Madsen, Transportation Program Director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. “When you build for more cars, more cars are what you get. That’s a big reason why transportation is Colorado’s number one source of climate-changing pollution, and why the air along the Front Range is unhealthy to breathe. It’s also why our roads are full of traffic. This rule is a significant opportunity to build for a better future, with less pollution and more options to get around.”

“We thank the Transportation Commission for adopting this crucial greenhouse gas reduction rule,” said Becky English, Chair of the Transportation Committee at the Colorado Sierra Club. “It’s nation-leading policy. Only a handful of states have taken a step like this.”

“This rule is an important step toward thinking more holistically about how we get around,” said Piep van Heuven, Government Relations Director at Bicycle Colorado. “By investing in more clean mobility options and building more efficient communities, Colorado can both reduce pollution and increase quality of life.”

CDOT projects that the rule will deliver more than $26 billion in benefits for Colorado residents, visitors and businesses through 2040 (net present value, 2021 dollars). Those benefits include:

  • Almost $10 billion saved through prevented crashes as a result of reduced vehicle traffic;
  • More than $8 billion in value from preventing traffic delays — reducing the growth in the number of vehicles on the roads will save drivers time;
  • Almost $7 billion in reduced fuel and maintenance costs for vehicles, as they are driven fewer miles;
  • Almost $1 billion in prevented damage due to reduced emissions of carbon pollution, which causes global warming;
  • More than $500 million in public health benefits, both from reduced levels of smog and soot pollution in the air, and also from increased physical activity due to more walking and biking.

How those benefits will be distributed across Colorado communities is one area where the rule leaves some uncertainty. Advocates pushed for measures to prioritize benefits for disproportionately impacted communities, particularly in low-income communities of color living near big highways. These communities have borne significant impacts in terms of disruption and higher levels of local air pollution as a result of previous investments in the transportation system, such as the construction and ongoing operation of Interstate 70 through north Denver, and have also historically seen less investment in clean mobility options. The rule requires a “geographic nexus” between the local pollution that comes from projects and efforts to mitigate that pollution, but whether the rule will prioritize benefits for disproportionately impacted communities remains to be seen.

“While we wish the rule did more to meaningfully protect disproportionately impacted communities, we are glad that it requires CDOT and planning organizations both to recognize and begin taking responsibility for transportation infrastructure that deeply affects such communities,” said English.

Additional measures outside this rule have potential to better address harms caused by past transportation investments (or disinvestment). For example, CDOT recently established an Environmental Justice and Equity branch, and hired Marsha Nelson to lead it. One of her first tasks will be to design and establish an equity framework for transportation.

The new climate rule and equity office come at a critical time, with historic levels of new transportation funding from Colorado’s Senate Bill 21-260 and the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on the way. The state will spend more than $30 billion on transportation infrastructure between 2022 and 2050, and these steps will help guide more of those investments towards projects that reduce pollution and improve access to clean mobility options.

The effectiveness of this rule will depend on how well it is implemented. The pollution targets and implementation schedules are minimum requirements, and the state and local governments can do more and act faster.

“We look forward to working with the Colorado Department of Transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and local governments across the state to ensure the successful implementation of this rule, and to maximize its benefits for all Coloradans,” concluded Madsen.


The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) is a public interest organization promoting greater energy efficiency in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Bicycle Colorado is a member-supported nonprofit in Denver. They envision a Colorado where riding a bicycle is always safe and convenient for everyone, where bicycling is the top choice for recreation and every day trips, and where the benefits of bicycling are experienced and valued by all people in the state.

Colorado Sierra Club is a collective of more than 100,000 grassroots changemakers working together across the state to advance climate solutions, act for justice, get outdoors, and protect lands, water, air, and wildlife.