Proposed EPA Ozone Regulations Threaten Denver Area Transportation Projects

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The FINANCIAL — The U.S. Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy continued its analysis of the impact of the Obama administration’s proposed ozone regulations with a snapshot look at the Denver region.

The Energy Institute’s Grinding to a Halt series explains how EPA’s proposal to tighten ozone standards could impact critical transportation projects nationwide. In the Denver region, new regulations could threaten the I-70 East Reconstruction and Expansion project–the largest project in Colorado history, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“The administration’s proposed new standards are so stringent that even the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National parks won’t be in compliance,” said Dan Byers, senior director of Policy at the Energy Institute. “While air regulators in Denver have done an excellent job controlling emissions during a time of growth, Denver’s ozone levels still exceed the current standard. A tightened standard will trigger harsh restrictions on economic development and potentially the withholding of transportation funds.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the federal government is authorized to withhold transportation funding and halt permitting for highway and transit projects in regions unable to demonstrate compliance with emissions rules. The Denver region is among many areas across the country expected to have great difficulty complying. Previous Energy Institute reports identified challenges in the Washington, DC and Las Vegas regions.

Since 1980, population in the Denver metropolitan region has doubled. As a result, there has been a 52 percent increase in traffic volume since 1995, and drivers are losing 49 hours each year due to congestion. While strong population growth and an expanding economy have helped the region prosper, they also exacerbate ozone compliance challenges.

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Regional leaders have proposed dozens of new projects to expand highway capacity and help relieve congestion. If the region is unable to demonstrate conformity under EPA’s tightened standard, many of these projects could be impacted. Foremost among them is the $1.8 billion I-70 East Reconstruction and Expansion through Denver and Aurora between I-25 and Tower Road. The project will widen lanes, replace the aging viaduct and add a tolled express lane in each direction between I-25 and I-225.

While construction on the project is expected to begin in 2017, it will proceed in phases as funding becomes available, and its completion could be at risk if the Denver metropolitan region is unable to demonstrate transportation conformity compliance with EPA’s proposed ozone standards. EPA is expected to announce a new standard between 65 and 70 parts per billion by October 1, while Denver’s current level is 82 parts per billion.

“What is particularly frustrating for cities like Denver is that much of the emissions are not produced locally,” said Byers. “Background ozone levels in Denver and throughout the west are very high, and reflect natural levels as well as transported emissions from California and across the Pacific. Localities should not be punished for this reality.”

 

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