Mayor Michael Hancock testifies to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Mayor Michael Hancock testifies on Feb. 24, 2021 to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works during a hearing on reauthorization of the 2015 surface transportation law.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock made the case to a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that a renewal of federal surface transportation legislation should provide more flexibility to local governments to fund their projects using federal dollars.

"Today, I offer this division of labor: Keep states focused on intercity and interstate corridors — with resources from the National Highway Performance Program," Hancock testified remotely. "Two, use the Surface Transportation Block Grants to local areas to lift the economy — from the local level up — and accelerate progress on the key priorities before us."

Hancock was the only local, and only western, official appearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for a hearing about transportation funding and its connection to climate change, equity and economic growth. Also speaking were Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., and New Hampshire Department of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan.

Signed in 2015, the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act provided $305 billion over five years for a variety of transportation programs. Last year, Congress extended the act by one year. The national highway program to which Hancock referred put more than $20 billion per year into the national highway system, and the Surface Transportation Block Grant program awarded flexible funds that states and localities may use for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, transit and road projects, among other improvements.

In response to a question from U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Hancock indicated support for her proposal to establish a competitive block grant aimed at traffic congestion relief for cities.

“You have to offer just as many or more competitive options for them than driving alone," the mayor said. "Our single occupancy [vehicle] rate in Denver was over 73% and that was just unsustainable.”

Senators heard from the state officials about their projects, their work with state legislatures to fund transportation and a continued need for flexibility in federal money received.

“We get input from each of the local governments on what their priorities are and as a state, we try to take those priority considerations in as we’re putting together our state transportation plan," said Hogan.

However, Hancock pushed back against tying localities to their states, and spoke out against "bogging down municipalities in bureaucracy" as local governments, in his view, could more quickly respond to emerging mobility needs.

"We’re always seeing a small portion of the resources that are coming to our states, particularly to our major urban centers," Hancock explained. "Post-pandemic’s going to mean that we're going to have a different work culture in this country. We believe that most people are going to have a rotational basis of working remotely and then in person."

In written remarks provided to the committee, Hancock said the FAST Act had provided $51 million in fiscal year 2020 to Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs' metropolitan areas through the Surface Transportation Block Grant program. Those regions comprised approximately three-quarters of the state's population. By contrast, the Federal Highway Administration reports that the state's total allocation was $161 million.

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., asked Hancock directly about the Interstate 70 reconstruction project through Denver. Colorado Politics reported in January that the ongoing $1.2 billion project has resulted in the demolition of 56 homes and 17 businesses through the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods.

A 2016 civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation noted that Elyria-Swansea’s population is 83.8% Latino, 44.4% low-income and that the ZIP code is "the most polluted in Colorado."

The construction of the national highway system, Padilla said, "historically has been deeply destructive for many communities, particularly lower income communities and communities of color. The construction of highways through some neighborhoods has caused a displacement of predominantly minority residents and in many cases fosters isolation from opportunity, heightened exposure to pollution and chronic disinvestment."

Hancock replied that none of the alternative options for the Central 70 project were "feasible," adding that "it was when the city of Denver got involved in this conversation about the I-70 project that we were able to bring to light the values of equity."

The mayor also described Denver's desire to install electric vehicle charging stations in greater numbers, said he supports President Joe Biden's goal that 40% of infrastructure benefits go to historically-disadvantaged communities, and that he backs the "American Rescue Plan" COVID-19 relief measure.

"Denver doesn’t just have ready-to-go projects that were put on hold, we have JOB READY projects," he wrote in his remarks, pointing to the more than $100 million undertaking to reconstruct the 16th Street Mall as an example.

"The project will not only revitalize our core economic engine, it will also create 1,843 jobs and have an overall economic impact of $4 billion of value add to the regional economy," Hancock wrote. "I mention this project because it is an outstanding example of how Denver prioritizes hazard mitigation strategies and our infrastructure investments for equity."

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