Beavertail Mountain

Interstate 70 ducks under Beavertail Mountain between Palisade and De Beque  in Mesa County.

A funny thing happened at the Colorado Senate Finance Committee meeting last week. A transportation policy meeting broke out, carrying an environmental debate on its back.

And yet they we were talking about the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, climate change, carpool lanes, seed money for Front Range rail and kicking the can down the road into a pothole for nearly eight hours.

Welcome to the way Colorado handles a service every one of us depend on every day. That one hearing looked like a greatest hits collection of why we can’t have nice things.

Sen. Steve Fenberg is admirably pitching the most serious attempt I’ve seen in the 20 years I've lived in this state to fill a deep hole in transportation needs, growth planning and collective cynicism.

After the marathon meeting that, topic wise, bounced from one corner of the state to the other, he clarified it when he brought it to the floor last Friday.

"This is not a climate bill," said the powerful Senate majority leader. "This is a transportation bill, but you can't ignore the fact that transportation and climate are interconnected."

The malfunction junction under the gold dome, however, might as well be a dead end.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said at the hearing that when the legislature goes into session, folks at city hall hold their breath over transportation solutions. They must all be blue-faced goners by now.

Democrats have skillfully averted using money they’d rather apply to education and social services than lane miles. With majorities in the House and Senate, they are in the driver’s seat on the potentially $5.2 billion offer for transportation, most of it from new fees voters won't get to decide, other than ousting incumbents.

Now it’s Republicans and environmentalists kicking sand in transportation’s face.

GOP members are skeptical of the bill, because not enough of it fixes immediate traffic problems. Climate change warriors still don’t think the plan is green enough.

"One of my concerns is we're turning this road-and-bridge bill into an environmental bill," appraised Sen. Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction. "Last I checked, it's the Colorado Department of Transportation instead of the Colorado Department of Environmental Justice, or something."

Weld County Commissioner Scott James was more pointed: "As written, Senate Bill 260 is more concerned with pleasing the environmentalists than it is about providing a reliable transportation system for the very disproportionately disadvantaged communities it claims to champion."

Yet, Ean Thomas Tafoya, the Colorado field advocate for GreenLatinos, opposes asphalt because Hispanic people in central Denver and rural areas would help pay for it disproportionate to their income, while suffering the environmental consequences of more urban roadbuilding.

"I've heard in these talking points a lot about saving people's time," he said of traffic jams. "I want to talk about saving people's lives."

In his first executive order , Gov. Jared Polis said he wanted 940,000 electric vehicles sold in Colorado by 2030. At the time, there were about 28,000 EVs on the road, and the number has grown to 38,000 now. Sell 100,000 each year. Need to get from 3% to 47% of the vehicles sold.

“That’s an astounding number, but I guess anything is attainable in this world,” Scott said.

Marie Venner, speaking for Coalition for a Livable Climate and a former CDOT manager, said the bill is trying to enact a “long-range, out-of-date plan” in conflict with clean-air laws passed in 2019 that calls for a 26% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

“I’m an evidence-based public servant, and the evidence is conclusive that widening even managed lanes wastes public funds,” she said, explaining that new lanes don’t solve congestion problems for long; they simply attract more traffic, and five or 10 years later air pollution is up but the traffic is once again jammed.

“HOV lanes don’t encourage carpooling," she said. "Most of those people are in the same family.”

She sounded ready to charge the legislature with willful neglect and wasting money.

“It may be a crime against the people of Colorado to be funding a long-range transportation plan that falls so short of Colorado law that defines air pollution reduction at 26% by 2025 and 50% by 2030," she said.

The transportation coalition Fix Colorado Roads, which includes chambers and business groups, supported the bill with changes to address duplicative environmental reviews to undermine asphalt as an option to getting around.

Sandra Hagen Solin, who represents Fix Colorado Roads and the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, said the mission of putting dollars into transportation is shared, and their concerns should be, as well.

The business community had no idea and were dismayed that the higher environmental standards were tacked onto the final bill, she said.

"Embedding requirements through a myriad of layers for an enhanced level of planning that would be required from a broad swath of capacity projects will result in the advocates intended effect of, at a minimum, slowing down the delivery of those capacity projects and increasing costs," she said.

I don’t imagine King Solomon looked like Fenberg, the co-author and face of the plan.

It might take the wise king of Israel, however, to split this $5.2 billion baby.

Instead, we have the Senate majority leader from Boulder and Senate Bill 260.

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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