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Why Denver and L.A. Are Backing Away from Highway Expansions

New rules that require measuring greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as well as concerns about air pollution have led to the cancellation of what critics are calling highway “boondoggles.”

An aerial view of a large freeway leading into downtown Denver, Colo.
Denver and I-25
A planning authority in Denver took the rare step this week of deciding that the highway running through the heart of the region is wide enough as is, and redirecting funds that were previously assigned to lane expansions for other improvements instead.

Under a new plan approved by the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) on Wednesday night, Interstate 25 won’t get any new tolled lanes, which had been on the books for the last several years. Instead, I-25 and another highway, C-470, will get improvements to key access points and interchanges to improve safety and traffic flow. And around $900 million in transportation funding will be redirected away from highway expansion projects to other improvements, including building out a bus rapid transit corridor in the Denver area.

The reconsideration of the plan was triggered by a new rule issued late last year by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The rule, part of a statewide carbon-reduction initiative, required Colorado’s five metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) to start measuring greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector and making plans to reduce them, says Ron Papsdorf, division director for transportation planning and operations at DRCOG.

As the MPO for the Denver region, DRCOG helps set the transportation agenda for the area, with regional transportation plans updated every four years. The group had last issued a plan in April 2021, which included about $1.3 billion for the expansion of I-25, Papsdorf says. But it re-examined the plan after the rule was issued later that year, looking for ways it could reduce the growth of climate emissions in the area.

Papsdorf says the group “took a hard look” at the I-25 corridor, which averages nearly two crashes every day, and decided it made sense to focus on safety and traffic flow improvements over making the road bigger.

“It’s the freeway segment in the Denver region with the highest daily volumes. It moves a lot of people and a lot of goods. We want it to work — it needs to work — but we thought it was a conversation worth having,” Papsdorf says. What the plan settled on is “a different way to approach those problems that allowed us to balance those needs with other regional objectives.”

Turning the Ship in Denver

While MPOs like DRCOG don’t directly control most transportation funding, their approval is required for many big transportation projects. So removing the expansion of I-25 from Denver’s Regional Transportation Plan officially closes the book on the idea. But there’s been growing opposition to the expansion for some time, says Danny Katz, the director of the Colorado branch of the advocacy group Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG). People in the interstate-adjacent neighborhoods of Sun Valley and Valverde have reported high rates of asthma and air pollution. Adding more lanes to the highway would make those problems worse, and wouldn’t improve traffic flow over time, he says.

“It doesn’t solve congestion and it brings noise and pollution,” Katz says. “What we don’t need is more cars on our road.”

Gradually, officials and planning agencies have lined up against the expansion plan, Katz says. A group of state and local elected officials signed a letter to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) earlier this summer urging the department to remove the project from its plans. DRCOG’s vote was a nail in the coffin, but CDOT’s emissions rule was critical, and it was ultimately a community-wide push that changed the direction of the project. It’s no small feat for transportation planners to back away from a road-building project.

“It traditionally has felt like state DOTs have a pretty clear playbook, which is when you see congestion, you add new lanes,” Katz says. “So I give a lot of credit to CDOT for adopting a greenhouse gas rule and recognizing that this is a project where you can go down a different path.”

Decades of Advocacy Prevent a Highway Expansion in L.A. 

Another long-planned highway expansion was officially canceled earlier this year in Los Angeles. In May, the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to set aside a plan to expand the 710 freeway, a major arterial road for trucks carrying goods to and from the Port of Los Angeles. Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn says she co-wrote the motion to officially back away from the plan because “our state and federal partners had made clear that they would not support it, and, frankly, many of our communities didn’t either.”

The plan, which goes back at least two decades, had initially called for the freeway to be expanded to 16 lanes from eight. But even before the expansion plan was formalized, communities living near the highway had begun to organize around pollution issues from the highway and nearby rail yards. The planned expansion of 710 was a motivating factor in the formation and growth of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, says Laura Cortez, co-director of the east-L.A.-based advocacy group.
A portion of the 710 freeway in East Los Angeles with a large interchange.
A portion of the 710 freeway in East Los Angeles. (Chevy111/Wikipedia)
“I think the initial reason that folks became engaged was because of the severe health impacts,” Cortez says. “You see the smoke coming off the trains, you smell the diesel from these trains and these trucks, you see the traffic. These are visual cues for us, but then you start to feel it in your body.”

People living close to the freeway reported random nosebleeds and headaches, asthma, bronchitis, cancer and other serious respiratory issues, Cortez says. The expansion plan would have displaced many homes and businesses. Residents organized and fought for influence over the plan. Working with researchers at USC Environmental Health Centers and Occidental College, they were able to get scientific backup for the health issues they were reporting and their link to nearby transportation infrastructure, Cortez says. Community groups created their own alternative plan for the 710 freeway, which focused on clean-energy transport of goods, public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, improvements to the L.A. River — and no new general-purpose traffic lanes. Eventually, the Environmental Protection Agency itself came out against the expansion plan.

The groups celebrated a victory when Metro officially nixed the plan, but it was a long time coming, Cortez says. Some early organizers haven’t even lived to see it. East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and other community groups are now working with Caltrans and the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on alternative plans for the corridor.

“It’s been an interesting and definitely uphill process,” Cortez says.

Many Highways Still Growing

The L.A. and Denver decisions are two prominent examples of transportation planning agencies turning away from highway expansions, which in many places have been the default priorities for decades. But nationally, there are still many highway expansions on the books. The Biden administration has tried to signal that reducing climate emissions from the transportation sector is a priority, including through a proposed Federal Highway Administration rule requiring states to track emissions and set targets for reducing them. This is a somewhat less-enforceable version of the rule passed by the Colorado DOT. Guidance for federal transportation funding encourages states to fix highways before expanding them, but states still have broad leeway to spend infrastructure money on expanding their roads, and many of them are choosing to do so.

This month, PIRG released its periodic Highway Boondoggles report, tracking expensive highway projects around the country. As a reminder, says Matt Casale, PIRG’s environment campaigns director and a co-author of the report, “A boondoggle is a word for something that has the appearance of having value but really is actually worthless.”

That applies to a lot of highway projects when you consider that they don’t tend to relieve congestion long-term, that they siphon money away from alternative transportation projects, that they create more opportunities for dangerous collisions and that they put more greenhouse-gas-emitting cars on the road, Casale says.

Denver’s decision to back off the I-25 expansion is an “encouraging” recognition that it’s not easy to expand highways and reduce emissions at the same time, Casale says. But federal funding can still be used to reinforce the road-building status quo, and in most cases probably will be — at least until the next transportation reauthorization needs to be passed in 2026, Casale says.

“You’re starting to see these inklings in the states, locally, and at the federal government of, we’re going to have to grapple with this problem,” Casale says. “But as you can see from our report, there’s still billions of dollars in proposed projects out there.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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