traffic jam on narrow street (copy) cars denver

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The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment apparently believes the carrot is going to work better than the stick when it comes to getting large companies in metro Denver to reduce the number of employees commuting to work in single-occupancy, gas-burning vehicles.

The department Monday sent a letter to stakeholders stating: “After reviewing the various prehearing statements in this rulemaking, the state recognizes that many of the businesses, employees, and local communities that will be impacted by the rule have concerns about the Employer Traffic Reduction Program ... as currently proposed.”

Chambers of commerce and business groups in metro Denver opposed the proposed rules and regulations as too expensive, too time consuming and overreaching in scope. The employers said the state wanted them to track employees on their off time as they commuted to and from the workplace.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, for one, welcomed the updated rule language issued Monday.

“We have more to learn about compliance with the survey, but are overall pleased that the majority of the rules will be voluntary as we requested," said Laura Giocomo Rizzo, the chamber's senior vice president of external affairs, in an email. "This will allow employers to continue to work to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips, increase flexibility for employees and improve air quality without the legal questions, costs and unintended consequences that would have accompanied a mandate."

The program stemmed  from legislation passed in 2019 aimed at reducing Colorado greenhouse gas emissions. But the new law passed before businesses were impacted by a pandemic that saw entire industries shut down and unemployment skyrocket.

The program rules, as proposed by the department’s Air Quality Control Commission, previously wanted large businesses with more than 100 workers to “increase parking charges” for gas-powered vehicles, appoint an “employee transportation coordinator” to administer programs that reduce “single occupied vehicle” commutes and offer  subsidized public transportation passes.

The state wanted 2,764 businesses with some 900,000 employees to submit plans by Jan. 1, 2022. The trip-reduction program could could cost anywhere from $7,200 to $811,643 annually to implement, depending on business size, according to a state economic impact study. 

Monday’s letter showed the commission -- which is set to meet on the final rulemaking next month -- wants most measures to be voluntary, with some economic incentives going to companies that comply.

Under the proposed revisions, only requirement due in 2022 will be a survey of employees on their commuting habits, which the state will use to determine how many workers are commuting alone in their gas-burning cars

“The Department will revise its ... proposal to first focus on data gathering components to establish a strong baseline for future policy paired with setting a strong foundation through a voluntary trip reduction approach,” the letter states.

“This new proposal is based on the recognition that lasting and meaningful success will require strong buy-in from employers and employees who are subject to the program, and a pilot phase will facilitate our understanding of real world implementation successes and challenges.”

The regulations under consideration came from Colorado's Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, which Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in 2019.

It set a target reducing “2025 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26%, 2030 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50%, and 2050 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% of the levels of statewide greenhouse gas emissions that existed in 2005.”

Critics contend the legislation lacked specifics on how those goals should be met.

"This is how efforts like this should be done – in a way that partners with employers and gives them time to understand their teams and what works best,” said Giocomo Rizzo.

Here are some of the updated rules, as proposed in Monday’s communication:

  • “Mandatory regulatory requirements” that large employers in the affected area -- an “8-Hour Ozone Control Area” that includes the counties of Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, Denver and Jefferson and parts of Weld and Larimer Counties -- conduct an annual survey to determine how many employees are commuting alone in gasoline-powered vehicles.
  • Businesses that voluntarily develop trip-reduction plans could be “paired with incentives for early adopters that include ... credit toward potential future rules.”
  • Business should strive to reach a level of less than 60% of employees commuting alone in gasoline-powered vehicles by 2025.
  • Ongoing tracking and surveys.

The commission's nine members were appointed by Polis under rules that allowed a maximum of five Democrats on the panel.