traffic jam on narrow street

Colorado wants large companies to voluntarily implement measures to cut down on single-occupant, gas-powered vehicle commutes. 

Colorado’s controversial plan to reduce single-occupied vehicle commutes among metro Denver’s large companies isn’t dead, but it’s taken on a new life.

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment's Air Quality Control Commission stood poised to finalize a whole slew of regulations that would have required metro area businesses to track how their employees were getting to and from work.

But after area business groups protested the efforts to clean up Denver’s air quality with fines and regulations, state officials backed off. The commission was set to start the rulemaking process at its Aug. 19 regular meeting.

Colorado backs off large company commuter rules, seeks voluntary compliance

But the department July 19 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.”

While the commission considered requiring large employers, those with more than 100 workers, to conduct a study of commuting habits among employees – even that idea has been tabled, according to recent department filings.

As those business groups breathed a sigh of relief after they shielded their members from what they called potentially expensive and time-consuming regulation, environmental groups mourn what they called a missed chance to help improve Denver area’s ozone.

“We know we need a suite of strategies if we are going to significantly reduce climate pollution, and while the … proposal wasn't perfect, it would have been a useful tool,” said Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action. “The (Air Quality Control Commission), the Transportation Commission, and other state agencies are going to have to adopt even more ambitious programs and regulations to make up for taking (the trip-reduction program) out of the toolbox. And the longer it takes us to achieve substantial emissions reductions, the harder and more expensive it will be and the more climate change will threaten our economy and our quality of life.”

The group is a coalition of 38 local governments across the state "advocating for stronger state and federal climate policy," according to its website.

Health department officials are confident many of those companies, and government entities, that would have been impacted will take voluntary measures to reduce single-occupant commutes in gas-powered vehicles.

“We are going to pursue the Employee Traffic Reduction Program programmatically; we don’t think it’s necessary to pursue it formally through a rulemaking,” said health department spokesman Andrew Bare via email. “We’ve received a lot of feedback and are confident that Colorado businesses are committed to helping to achieve the program’s objectives voluntarily. We are looking forward to using this program to collect baseline data, share innovative ideas, and achieve results. It’ll be one tool in our toolbox to reduce ozone pollution.”

The state started the process of recommending the regulations after the health department finalized its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap plan in January. The plan’s ultimate target is 100% renewable energy by 2040, but state leaders are aiming to have emissions reduced by 26% in 2025 and by 50% five years later.

“This all started with the Regional Air Quality Council,” said Mike Silverstein, executive director.

It’s the organization’s job to “evaluate mission control strategies” and make recommendations to state offices like the Air Quality Control Commission.

“We explored the idea of a mandatory strategy, which exists in other places,” he said.

The Council estimates one-third of all harmful emissions that damage the ozone come from commuter trips.

“We estimate that’s two tons of ozone emissions a day … that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is,” Silverstein said.

The ultimate initial goal of the trip-reduction program was to have large-company employees commit to taking alternate forms of commuting just once a week – carpooling, public transportation, electric vehicles, bicycling or working from home.

“Then we were going to ramp up to skipping two trips by 2025,” he said. “We can implement programs ourselves to improve air quality, but we’ve got no regulatory authority.”

But when chambers of commerce heard about mandatory regulations and possible fines for non-compliance, they balked big time.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, for one, said the proposal "punishes employers and puts them in a weird position" of having to track employees before and after work by way of their commuting habits.

The draft program rules previously wanted large businesses 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, even if that business was no where near public transportation.

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

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.”