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Passengers exit the Route 11 bus of Mountain Metro Transit in 2020, at the downtown Colorado Springs terminal. New state transportation funding rules will force metropolitan areas to spend more on multimodal transportation, such as bus service and bike lanes.

A state commission approved a new rule Thursday that will tie together transportation funding and greenhouse gas emissions in a way that has Colorado Springs area leaders concerned the region might see federal funding for transportation restricted to multimodal projects if the area can't meet emissions targets. 

The new rule requires large metropolitan areas, such as the Colorado Springs and Denver areas, to model how major road extensions and expansions could increase carbon emissions from cars and require the regions to plan and build projects to off set those emissions, such as bike lanes and bus service expansions, said Matt Inzeo, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Colorado is the first state in the nation to take such a step, according to a news release. 

The goal is to cut carbon emissions over time by changing transportation habits even as the population grows. 

For example, more people may use a bus service if it runs every seven minutes instead of every 20, Inzeo said. 

"When options become more readily available, more convenient, people use them more," he said. 

The new rule is meant to help the state meet its goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050 from 2005 levels.

A large majority of the state's Transportation Commission supported the new rule including the Pikes Peak region Transportation Commissioner Lisa Tormoen Hickey.

"It is an important step forward as we work toward a more modern transportation system," she said. 

However, Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments Executive Director Andrew Gunning said the approach leans on the assumption that people may not want to drive as much if they have to battle more congestion. The council coordinates regional transportation planning and sent two letters to the state outlining concerns about the rule. 

"Are people going to stop driving as much … because we are not adding as much roadway capacity?" said Gunning.

City Councilman Wayne Williams has pointed out previously that not building needed road expansions and extensions has not stopped the area's traffic congestion from growing. 

Gunning is also concerned that the state has not determined how much credit the region will receive for multimodal projects, such as bike lanes. 

"We have been guessing at this — if we would be able to comply with it and we literally have no idea," he said. 

If the region is unable to comply with its emission reductions targets, federal transportation dollars could be restricted to multimodal projects that would focus on reduction, such as bus service, he said. Complying could be tough because while the council coordinates regional transportation planning, it does not control land-use decisions, such as where new subdivisions will be built. Cities and towns control zoning that allows new housing and commercial districts. Colorado Springs covers nearly 200 square miles and it can take two hours by bus to reach a destination 15 minutes away by car. 

The state cannot restrict the use of local transportation dollars, such as those raised by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, which collects a 1% sales tax for roads, Gunning said. 

Some statewide leaders, including the Transportation & Energy Committee Chairwoman Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, championed the new rule as an important step in the fight against climate change, in a new release. 

“This rule sets a national precedent showing what is possible when we come together and decide that we can improve our transportation infrastructure and address the climate emergency," she said. 

Jon Caldara, president of Independence Institute, a right-leaning Denver-based nonprofit, decried the rule as an outrageous step that won't address congestion. 

"If we cared about air quality we would fix our damn roads because the worst air quality happens during traffic jams," he said.

Caldara is a columnist for the Colorado Springs and Denver gazettes. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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