Hickenlooper Strives for an Energy Efficient Denver

John Hickenlooper's city is a leader in transit, housing, and green initiatives.

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Denver might not be the first place one would think to look for examples of progressive urban development. But the energy-centric city has become a leader in areas of transit, housing, and energy efficiency, thanks to a succession of effective leaders. U.S. News spoke to the most recent in that line, Mayor John Hickenlooper—a geologist turned brew-pub owner and now candidate for governor—about how Denver has become a place where energy conservation and development mix well.

The West is a car-and-pickup-truck culture. How did Denver adapt to light rail?

They loved it, right from the beginning. We still have a car culture. People want to have their car, but they also want choices, and people are sick of spending 45 minutes or an hour in traffic. The persuasive argument about light rail is not that you need to get into light rail, but it is the ability to attract other people into light rail and get them off the roads, so that you can get to and from work much more easily.

You took a regional approach to solving transit problems.

Historically, there has been this antagonistic, adversarial relationship between the city and the suburbs. And when I got elected—you know, I spent almost 20 years in the restaurant business, and the one thing you learn is there is no margin in having enemies. No matter how unreasonable the customer, you have got to bring them to the table. I did a cocktail reception the night before I got inaugurated. I brought in all the county commissioners, all the mayors. I just said the days of Denver making decisions for their own benefit are over. We realized that we have to have strong, healthy suburbs to be a strong city, and we hope that you recognize that you need a strong downtown to make your suburbs look more attractive. And in the end, we got all 32 mayors, Republicans and Democrats, large cities like Denver and Aurora, little towns like Centennial. All 32 mayors unanimously supported a four-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax, which we passed in 2004 with about 60 percent of the vote.

As a businessman and a mayor, do you believe that green initiatives make ultimate economic sense?

I have a master's in geology. I took some climate science, and I think the public has to recognize that science is an imperfect thing. And I am very sympathetic to skeptics, to people who are concerned about, you know, is climate change happening as fast as people think, is the sky falling. I think that's the wrong way to look at it. Replacing incandescent streetlights is so simple. [Replacing] incandescent traffic signals, insulating buildings, green building, high-efficiency, high-mileage vehicles: All these things cost us almost nothing, and they can have dramatic effects.

Given that the public consensus about the possibility of global warming seems to have collapsed, do you think that politicians need to reframe the issue in terms of how they communicate this to people?

The potential threat of this is so significant that you would have to be a fool not to face it. I mean, I hate the cap-and-trade. I think part of what has driven the public opinion away is this sense that there is going to be a big government bureaucracy and something so complicated we can't under­stand it. But what about a "tax-and-dividend" approach? Tax carbon and then give it back to the people, so the government is not spending the money; there is no big government bureaucracy. People will pay more for their gas, but then they will get the money back, so they can spend it for something else. That will make people drive less. It will make people insulate their homes.

Do you think that tax-and-dividend is something that would sell to your constituents?

Yeah. We have been talking tax-and-dividend for a year and a half in Colorado. Nobody likes any kind of a tax in any form, but I think there is grudging support for it at a fairly wide level as [long as] people believe there is a significant chance that we are putting our future generations at great risk. And within that context, people say, "So you are going to tax me more for all the fuel that I buy, but you are going to give it back to me in my income tax? Yeah, I can deal with that."