Get used to fewer freeway-widening projects and more street redesigns meant to speed up buses on major corridors. Those are the biggest takeaways for metro Denver’s transportation future under new, climate-minded state and regional plans.

By Jon Murray

Get used to fewer freeway-widening projects and more street redesigns meant to speed up buses on major corridors. Those are the biggest takeaways for metro Denver’s transportation future under new, climate-minded state and regional plans.

Rewrites of Colorado’s statewide 10-year priority project plan and two Front Range regional transportation plans are nearing adoption in the next month. Especially in metro Denver, they shift big money from expanding pavement to other projects that make it easier, and safer, to travel on public transportation, on bike or on foot.

The growing Front Range still would see some new lanes added on major freeways and arteries under the revised plans, but not as many as previously envisioned. Particularly notable is the axing of a future expansion of Interstate 25 through central Denver, the state’s busiest stretch of highway, supplanted by smaller safety-focused projects.

Coming approval votes, starting with the Colorado Transportation Commission on Thursday, will mark the culmination of a mandate from state lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis’ administration: Transportation planners at the state and regional levels must address, with urgency, that sector’s role in generating greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental advocates are cheering changes in the plans, while some local officials have suggested they new invite backlash from the largely car-dependent public.

But a planner with the Denver Regional Council of Governments says he sees the revisions to DRCOG’s 2050 regional transportation plan less as a “sea change” than a continuation of key pivots it’s made in recent years.

That plan prioritizes how tens of billions of federal, state and regional money will be spent across nine counties in the coming decades. Last year’s version already included more bus rapid transit lines — which typically reserve a lane for buses — along busy arterial streets, said Ron Papsdorf, DRCOG’s director of transportation planning and operations.

In the proposed update, those plans have been accelerated — with five projects now set out by 2030 along East Colfax Avenue in Denver, long in planning; a Colfax extension through Aurora; and long stretches of Federal Boulevard, Colorado Boulevard, and Colorado 119 between Boulder and Longmont. More rapid bus corridors would follow in the 2030s.

“We’ve put together a plan that we think balances a lot of different needs throughout the region,” Papsdorf said, noting a reality of metro Denver travel: “We know that the majority of people get around … by motor vehicles — that’s not going to change. And there are a lot of resources in this plan to address those issues.

“What this plan is doing is identifying some really strategic and important opportunities to change, a little bit, the way we’re using a portion of funds to address a broader range of needs.”

What’s changing for metro Denver?

Under DRCOG’s revised plan, less than 10% of the roughly $11 billion available for transportation improvements through 2050 would shift away from traditional road projects toward transit and other “multimodal” projects — those benefiting pedestrians, cyclists and other road users.

While the proportion is small, that’s still a lot of money: about $900 million, including $500 million set out for projects through 2030.

Here are key changes from DRCOG’s plan, including some also reflected in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s revisions to its own project list for the current decade:

I-25 between Alameda Avenue and 20th Street in Denver no longer is pegged for a megaproject that would widen it and add tolled express lanes. C-470, where a recent project added express lanes between I-25 and Wadsworth Boulevard, no longer would have those extended north to Interstate 70. But both corridors are prioritized for smaller projects that address bottlenecks, interchanges and safety deficiencies.

Roads in growing suburban areas will still be widened but a half-dozen projects have been reduced in scope. Widenings are eliminated for four-lane stretches of Lincoln Avenue in Douglas County and Smoky Hill Road in Arapahoe County, which instead would receive multimodal and safety improvements.

The buildout of rapid bus corridors has been sped up, with five set in the current decade and six beyond that — including Broadway/Lincoln Street, Alameda, and Speer Boulevard/Leetsdale Drive/Parker Road in the 2030s.

The Regional Transportation District, which faces significant financial challenges in the coming years, has said it would be able to operate the new rapid bus lines because they are on corridors that already have frequent bus service.

What about other highways?

Not all highway expansions are on the chopping block. The revised plans still include major expansions in or near the metro area:

Interstate 270 for its entire length in northeast metro Denver, with full reconstruction and likely express lanes added.

I-70 between Floyd Hill and Idaho Springs, a $700 million reconstruction project now in its design phase that would smooth curves and extend the westbound mountain express lane.

Additional segments of northbound I-25 north of metro Denver, extending express lanes now under construction near Loveland and Fort Collins all the way down to E-470. Some segments may not begin construction until the 2030s.

When will these plans be approved?

DRCOG’s Board of Directors, made up mostly of local elected officials from around the area, is set to consider the 2050 plan update on Sept. 21. The North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, which covers a region including Fort Collins and Greeley, will consider its updated 2045 regional plan Oct. 6.

But first up is the state Transportation Commission, which is set to vote Thursday on an update to the state’s 10-year project plan. Focused on projects launching this decade, the state list — which includes $1.7 billion for projects in the next five years — incorporates the regional plans’ changes while also tweaking projects elsewhere in the state.

Why is this happening now?

Colorado lawmakers last year approved a $5.4 billion transportation bill that will provide more money for transportation projects of all kinds in the next decade, thanks in part to new fees on gas purchases, retail deliveries and other items.

But the bill also took aim at climate emissions, setting the stage for new greenhouse gas rules adopted by the Transportation Commission in December. Those come in concert with other initiatives targeting power generation and other sectors.

More electric vehicles will help reduce emissions but state and regional planners have been charged with finding ways to further reduce the gases spewed into the air.

Their modeling must show that they will meet strict emission reduction targets set in 2025, 2030, 2040 and 2050 — or they will risk losing out on some funding that flows through the state.

The varying targets are modest, starting at a less than 3% reduction in emissions compared to their existing plans for 2025 and approaching 10% later on. Planning organizations for the Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Pueblo metro areas are exempt from the 2025 requirement but must meet their own reduction targets starting in 2030.

How else will they meet the targets?

While the northern Front Range’s planners say their modeling shows they will meet their reduction targets based solely on revisions to their project plans, the Denver region’s DRCOG is relying on a “mitigation action plan” to help it comply.

Its plan sets out several land-use and policy changes that will depend heavily on decisions made by local governments across metro Denver — decisions geared toward increasing zoning and making use of transit-oriented development to increase residential and job density. Those shifts in targeted areas theoretically would result in less travel by car.

The plan also includes the adoption of reduced or eliminated parking requirements and “complete streets” standards for safer roads and sidewalks.

DRCOG officials acknowledge that those all are voluntary, since DRCOG can’t control local decision-making by city and county leaders.

Another X-factor has helped the regional and state planners meet their targets: Rapid shifts to telecommuting that accelerated during the pandemic. DRCOG’s previous plan had assumed that telecommuting would increase to 12% of workers, but now it’s assuming 25% is where the rate will settle.

Jacob Riger, DRCOG’s long-range transportation planning manager, said that change helped but didn’t fully offset the need for aggressive efforts to reduce emissions in other ways.

“It really takes that sort of comprehensive framework in order to meet the reduction levels in the plan,” he said.

What has been the reception for these plans?

Supporters have flooded DRCOG’s online feedback portal and public meetings to voice support for the plan, in some cases drowning out opposing comments. Some have pushed the planners and public officials who will consider the plan to shift even more money away from road improvements.

“Reducing car dependence is one of our best tools for fighting climate change — as well as the chronic air pollution that plagues the Denver region, disproportionately affecting low-income and Black, Indigenous, Latine and other communities of color,” said Jenny Gaeng, Conservation Colorado’s transportation campaign manager, during a public hearing Wednesday on DRCOG’s plan revisions.