Boulder Used Cars – Traffic, transit, and taxes – Colorado’s infrastructure misery has been at the forefront of years when the country tried to cope with population growth and worsening road congestion. Now add to the shocking turmoil of the second week’s last section of the Fourth National Climate Review, which describes in the chapter on transportation how “a reliable, safe and efficient US transportation system is at risk from increased heavy rainfall, coastal flooding, heat, forest fires and other extreme events, as well as changes in average temperature. ”
The Colorado Independent reached out to University of Colorado Boulder professor Paul Chinowsky, whose research focuses on the costs, adaptation and impact of infrastructure related to climate change and who co-authored the report chapter on transportation. The main message: Transportation funding is no longer a problem of taxation and dollars spent but problems of public security and economic needs.
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Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
How does climate change affect Colorado’s infrastructure?
The road surface is actually designed to handle a fairly small temperature range. When it gets hot, the asphalt becomes soft. When you have a truck and lots of traffic through this soft road, you start to hole, you start to get cracks. Even before these trips may have lasted 10 or 12 years before they have to reappear, you may now have to do it every five or six years. You can imagine doubling the cost of road repair and what it does to the local community. Or you have the choice not to fix it. Then everyone complained about their car being destroyed by passing a perforated road, the bus became much more affected and you had to increase the tariff for transportation.
Impact on the railroad system. Rails really did a bad job in handling heavy freight train traffic when temperatures were getting upwards in the 90s. You really have to slow down or stop the train traffic. Most of our items travel by train. In 30 years, the Colorado climate is expected to look more like Albuquerque. Faster, the hot weather we just experienced last summer, it will be more than the norm.
When you take that hot weather and put it into an infrastructure designed for climate 30 or 40 years ago, you have a big mismatch. We will damage the road faster, buildings that do not have air conditioning now that need to be cooled. And then you really get into: Where does Colorado get that energy?
The Colorado voters only rejected the two steps of voting that deal with transportation funding – but this climate report seems to indicate that the country’s infrastructure misery will only get worse from here …
Colorado has a real problem because we tend to be a country that doesn’t like taxes, we don’t like paying too much for public goods. However, without taxes, where will the money come from to really handle this traffic and road problem? The alternative is that we will face a far worse problem than we can today.
Do you think the community understands how connected infrastructure and climate change issues are?
We are still debating about whether climate change exists. And many people know that even if climate change exists, this won’t be a problem that will affect us for another 40 or 50 years. And we haven’t told the story enough or in the right way that people understand that it happened today.
What is the right way to tell the story?
What is missing is: How do they affect individuals in their lives? When you talk about the fact that climate change might produce half the degree of warming and that would cause ice caps to melt – yes, that’s true, and that’s very important, but the average person doesn’t understand that. They understand that if you have small children in elementary school, in two years they may be sitting in a classroom where the temperature is regularly more than 90 degrees in August. How will they study in that environment?
What can or should people who try to make changes in the infrastructure sector in Colorado learn from the past few weeks: First, the failure of the two steps of transport voting – and now this climate report?
The arguments traditionally made about roads have a lot about traffic, that we need to build more roads and more infrastructure to handle traffic. We don’t tend to say, ‘This is your choice: Well we passed a resolution like this and we start spending money on this, or the road will be in a worse condition.’ We did not show them the negative effects of saying ‘No’ very well.
How does climate change affect infrastructure differently in urban and rural areas of the country?
If you live in downtown Denver, you are used to jumping on a light bus or train. There will be a comfort disturbance like that. Whereas in rural areas, it has far more impact on actual support for your economic welfare. We rely heavily on roads and trains to get, for example, agricultural crops to distribution centers. If the roads cannot handle large trucks or if the train has a service disruption, then we cannot get the harvest according to the schedule where they need it. Transportation in rural areas is basically an economic engine.
This report outlines not only the issues of mitigating the effects of climate change, but also focuses heavily on how to adapt to what has happened, and what – because of the longevity of the greenhouse gases that have been released – will continue to happen for the next several decades. Colorado experienced flooding in 2013, seen more and more droughts and forest fires. How do we adapt to this normal new thing?
That is one of the main things in this report: Adaptation is as important as mitigation. That is something that people need to start hearing: We need to adapt now. How do you make people do that? The first thing is that people need to be educated and aware. Adaptation means being aware of vulnerabilities.
We don’t always have to start with the biggest and most expensive adaptations, we can start from things like the cooling center and see what our elementary school needs. We also need – at the state level – to really start prioritizing the 10 main things that we as a country will enter our dollar adaptation into. It can’t just be, ‘here is something, there is something’, by chance. We need leadership.
Do you see that leadership now?
I don’t see it now in Colorado. It would be interesting to see if that happened with changes in administration. Governor [John] Hickenlooper has tried, but I think he has run the power of the oil and gas industry. And that really will make someone stand up and say, “Yes, this is an important industry, and we will find out how to adapt without closing those industries – but the health and safety of our citizens in Colorado must come first.”
Do you think that the elected Governor of the Police felt responsible for this problem given that there was almost no debate about climate change during the governor’s campaign?
From what I see, yes. I think he understands that. He is in a position in a country that is not progressive enough to be fully committed to dealing with climate change. This is a situation that very much places climate change in the context of work. The challenge is to change the narrative that climate change is about life and safety and not just about work. And the question is: Is he ready to fight? I hope so.
The climate report does not issue as many policy recommendations as it shows what will happen. Let’s do the next step now: What can institutions – such as the Department of Transportation – do to reduce and adapt to the effects of climate change on infrastructure here?
There are three urgent things that need to be done. There needs to be a policy that no new projects or major renovations can be approved without considering the climate impact. That is a matter of adaptation. The second is the administrative problem in which agencies need to develop a state-level independent commission that provides recommendations on what priorities – as we will do in other major emergency situations. We need to treat this like we try to avoid an emergency. The third thing from the point of view of marketing or public relations, there needs to be a very specific campaign aimed at the local level about why this is important and why adaptation is now important. If we do all three things, we will move significantly on the road to implementation.
What – if anything – has been done here in Colorado to reduce and adjust to the report’s findings?
There must be a cultural change. This will take several problems. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that everyone will suddenly take public transportation. So we must at least make the cars we drive more clean and more fuel efficient. That is the first part.
The second part is that we need a campaign that really makes public transportation attractive to people. I don’t know exactly how it will happen, but we need to see especially Europe, where public transportation is a much more integrated part of people’s lives. That is a different type of focus than we normally do. That will take time.
Do you think that conversation is really – and honest – happening here in Colorado now? We have talked about trains from Boulder to Denver for decades …
I don’t think that happens at the level where people take it seriously. People don’t believe the train will be built. People don’t believe that change can be done. We are in this situation where people know it’s a good thing but they don’t think it’s necessary. We have not created the necessity that we need to change.
How did you do that?
There are a number of fear factors that must be faced. Look at the lessons from California that invest in earthquake protection in buildings. People are very concerned about what happens if they are in a building during an earthquake and the building does not depend on standards. We have to start saying: If you are in an area where the temperature is very high, your road is damaged, the maintenance cost of your car will go up. We do not take into account that people tend to only want to spend money when they have concerns for their own safety. We have not made the argument that this is a matter of personal security.
If I read this interview now, what can I do?
This conversation must be something that is not only seen in publications, but this is a conversation that must occur at dinner, at work, in a restaurant. You need to get to the point where people will feel OK to take action. I don’t even ask anyone to change their habits at this time. Yes, it would be great if people started using more public transportation. Right now, I ask them to start talking about it and find out who their representatives are in the legislature of the state of Colorado. Write down the statement and let them know that this is important to you. Go to the city council meeting. Until that happens, it’s too easy to put this on the back of the stove and say, ‘Not enough people are interested.’
The report stated, “Transportation is the backbone of economic activity.” Politicians like to talk about the economy. Remember, “This is economic, stupid!” Why is that not enough to find consensus on a kind of climate action?
Often, it is politically far more interesting to put money into new things, then talk about putting money into adaptation and improvement. Adaptation is considered to require tax. It returns to the message. As long as we discuss in terms of dollars or taxes, people will not be interested in doing this. Politicians have a real responsibility to turn it back into a discussion about health and safety and where it is a threat to the backbone of our economy.
The fact that our roads and bridges and airports need to be renewed is one of the rare problems where everyone seems to agree, but little is done. Add to the equation it’s a hot button problem like climate change, and it doesn’t seem to increase the chances for money starting to flow immediately, especially at the federal level …
This is actually one of the most frustrating things for someone working in this field. Everyone agrees that there is a problem, but we still haven’t moved forward and finished it. This is really confusing to me. That is wrapped up in how we will fund this. One side says, ‘This is a tax problem’. And others say, ‘No, this is a matter of local governance’ – and we never get anywhere. I don’t see us making much progress. That is disappointing. I have not seen true leadership to try and bridge that gap.
Is there something that gives you hope?
The thing that gave me hope was that we finally talked about impact. I really believe that this report might start making changes because we start changing conversations. That’s always the first step.
What is my reaction? Disappointment. Frustration. This is the time when we desperately need the leadership of the federal government, and we see not only the absence of leadership, we see a refusal of leadership in this matter. It is a disappointment that we have leadership that does not understand the problem.
Do you think the administration really doesn’t understand the problem or that they choose not to deal with the problem?
They chose to ignore the problem for political reasons. There are people in the administration who understand what the problem is. That’s where the heart is – individual political interests have exceeded the good of the country.
Everything that we have talked about, can all this work without the federal leadership?
With the new Congress, it helps. Before that, I would say, ‘No’. But the reintroduction of science into Congress is a big step, and we now have a platform to develop the foundation for these successful steps. The opportunity is there. I hope more than I did six months ago.
Republicans still control the Senate and the White House, though …
What can be done now is to at least start a conversation about the need to do this. That is the first step. Maybe that’s all that can be done for the next two years. On the other hand, that is also what we might be able to slow down some environmental returns. What I hope for is a negative slowdown and a positive start.
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