The path to Brian Varrella’s epiphany started more than a decade ago, when he was an engineer working for the City of Fort Collins and gunning for a couple days off.
The city challenged its employees with a wellness program that measured their impact on the planet. The prize, if they met certain goals, was up to three extra vacation days. Varrella dug into the challenge with the meticulous nature that makes engineers valuable at work and maybe a little annoying at home.
He looked at how he got to work. He looked at what he bought. Most of all, he looked at the food he ate. He looked at how the food got to his fridge (by plane, truck or, ideally, a local farm), the packaging that kept it fresh and what it took to create it (were the cow farts worth the burger?). He eventually went so far as to change his diet to shrink his own carbon footprint. He also got the extra vacation days.
That experience fed his idea to measure the greenhouse gases saved by the Colorado Department of Transportation during a project to rebuild a portion of U.S. 36 damaged by the Flood of 2013, when a soaking September storm turned rivers into white, frothing dragons that chewed up roads. The project also restored the river to its historic channel in the hopes that the next flood won’t be as devastating.
CDOT saved 6,600 cubic yards of blasting waste the restoration necessitated. CDOT used that waste to protect the culvert used to restore the river and create habitat for trout. CDOT, naturally, talked up the $1.3 million that saved in tax dollars. But Varrella, with 23 years in the industry and the last six with CDOT, saw another benefit. With help from an engineering friend, he imagined what would have happened had CDOT not used that blasting waste and had to truck it out instead. He looked at the 54,000 vehicle miles it would take to deliver that waste to the landfill. He came up with 133 tons of greenhouse gas waste in truck emissions that CDOT avoided. It was the first time CDOT measured that.
This may strike you as a way for a state transportation agency to toot its own horn — see what we did there? — but it’s also one of the many ways CDOT and other state transportation agencies across the country are examining their own impact on the environment and, in a more urgent sense, the climate. Why does that matter? Well, in his first job, Varrella’s manager gave him a credo that stuck with him: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
By measuring the carbon CDOT saved, Varrella believes his department will find ways to save even more in the future.
“We are looking at everything from the top down now,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about it. I love it.”
CDOT’s efforts now include developing a greenhouse gas budget for future transportation plans, and in December, the agency hired a greenhouse gas specialist, Theresa Takushi, to help them develop and meet that budget. CDOT is one of the first state transportation agencies in the country to take both those actions.
“In some ways, that’s a recognition that the work is growing and evolving in a way that you need some dedicated expertise,” said Matt Inzeo, director of communications for CDOT. “Having a single person own it naturally makes sure that lens is always applied.”
Varrella said the transportation industry has looked at the climate as a directive only in the last decade, led by agencies such as Oregon and Idaho. He also admits CDOT is borrowing ideas from those agencies. Conversations about the climate took place decades before. But the urgency has never been higher. Gov. Polis’ office insists on it now.
“The Governor and his team work closely with CDOT to better account for climate and take steps to reduce emissions,” said Victoria Graham, a spokeswoman from his office. “Since the transportation sector is now the top (greenhouse gas) emitter in the state and a major source of local air pollution, we must make major gains here to meet our climate obligations.”
The challenges of carbon
The Oregon Department of Transportation passed legislation way back in 2010 that required the department to develop a plan to reduce emissions. In 2014, the department found a way to put that plan into action, calling it a “road map” — heh — to meeting the goal. But in 2018, the department got quite a shock when a report measured how it was doing.
“We were going in the complete wrong direction,” said Amanda Pietz, a leader in the Oregon DOT’s efforts to meet its climate goals. “We actually increased emissions. We had some gains, but those were grossly offset by other factors.”
Those factors included a tough yardstick. When Oregon measured emissions back in 2010-11, gas prices were high and the economy was still recovering from the housing bubble crash. In 2018, gas prices were low and the economy was booming. Sales of fuel-efficient vehicles increased, but that only dented those larger factors. In response, Oregon developed a climate office with nine employees within its DOT, and Pietz now oversees the office as part of her duties as administrator of policy, planning, research and data.
Pietz readily admits that reducing emissions is indeed a difficult goal. Her department, just like Colorado, continues to push for progress in electric vehicles, which her department can do by encouraging and installing charging stations and marketing as well as directives to make all state vehicles electric. It gets even tougher after that.
An obvious solution is public transportation, but COVID-19 “wasn’t our friend for that,” as the pandemic evaporated many real gains in the use of transit: Ridership numbers remain at least half of what they were before the pandemic for most transit services across the country.
Transit, Pietz said, isn’t cheap, and yet it’s also hard to fund. A state law requires Oregon to use gas tax revenue exclusively for roadways. She said a change in funding may have to take place, from roads to transit, and that requires a paradigm shift.
“So to reduce emissions, we’d have to reduce our funding sources for our roads somehow,” she said. “But we struggle with keeping our roads and bridges in good repair, let alone our other things.
“That’s the challenge is that it’s such a phenomenal problem that we need everything, and yet some of those solutions can be costly and don’t move the needle a ton,” Pietz said. “But you still need them.”
Different states, different goals
Of course, not every state considers the climate as high a priority as, say, industries, business and rebuilding roads. So are these climate goals the same across transportation agencies in states that aren’t as blue as Oregon or Colorado? What about the red states that voted for former President Donald Trump both times, who denied climate change and undermined efforts to control it, even calling it a hoax. The question, naturally, makes Pietz squirm a bit before saying that her answer is “off the cuff.”
“I think the majority of DOTs have SOME sort of program and interest in climate change,” she said. “But the degree to which that is supported and the ability to move that agenda forward is more affected by the politics of the state. States that have enabling legislation and governors have a much easier time pushing those goals.”
Pietz, however, remains encouraged, as she chairs a national DOT subcommittee on climate change.
“It’s a big topic of conversation now,” she said. “We are starting to see many DOTs step into the role of addressing it.”
Colorado’s own $5.4 billion transportation bill reflects this conservation, as the most complex transportation bill in state history included many provisions to address the climate crisi. The bill includes fees on gasoline and diesel that will fund $3.8 billion to pay for enterprises to address the climate, including money to clean up areas that aren’t meeting federal air quality standards as well as fund clean transit. Gov. Polis is expected to sign the legislation that was approved on June 2.
In the meantime, Varrella will work on encouraging CDOT to measure emissions saved on its upcoming projects. The next big recovery effort from the flood includes rebuilding 14 miles of Colo. 7 and restoring four miles of river. As of this week, he will have numbers that measure the emissions the state agency should save with efforts it took for U.S. 36 as well as new measures.
“I’ll have numbers that reflect 10 times the number of emissions savings of U.S. 36,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting.”