States must lead on cutting transportation emissions, report urges

Author: 
Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

Transportation accounts for 32 percent of the greenhouse gases produced in the US. Only electricity generation poses a greater threat to the world’s climate. But with Congress increasingly unlikely to act, much of the initiative against global warming will have to come from the states, says a report prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Smart Growth America.

The 66-page analysis, “Getting Back on Track: Aligning State Transportation Policy with Climate Change Goals” (available here), is the first attempt to rate all of the 50 states on what they’re doing to cut the transportation sector’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The best states on the climate front, according to the report, are California, Maryland, and New Jersey. The worst are Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Some low-performing states, notably North Carolina, have recently begun aiming to do better. Widespread improvement will be essential, the report says, if America’s output of climate-threatening gases is to be curtailed.

“Technology by itself will not solve the problem,” former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, now president of Smart Growth America's Leadership Institute, emphasized in a Dec. 14 conference call with journalists. States will have to adopt policies that make communities more walkable and less dependent on automobiles, he asserted,

Despite appeals for reductions from four consecutive US presidents, greenhouse gas emissions nationwide actually jumped 27 percent between 1990 and 2007. Nearly half the net increase was attributable to the transportation sector, says the report, declaring: “Without bringing down transportation emissions, it will be impossible to achieve the reductions scientists have deemed necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

“Innovations leading to more efficient vehicles and new, cleaner fuels could mean large reductions in GHG emissions, but the projected 50 percent increase in VMT [vehicle miles traveled] between 2005 and 2030 would undermine much of the savings these technologies would earn,” the report warns.

Why focus on the states? Resistance to environmental regulations among the more conservative incoming Republican majority in the House of Representatives is one reason, but not the only one.

“States receive tens of billions of dollars in annual federal transportation grants,” says the report, written by Neha Bhatt and Stephanie Potts of Smart Growth America and Colin Peppard of NRDC. On their own, the states in fact raise more transportation money than what the federal government gives them. The states allocate the money geographically and set priorities on what kinds of modes and facilities to support — all of which influences land development patterns for good or bad.

The report urges states to:

• Balance their transportation spending by supporting public transit; favoring repairs and safety improvements for existing highways over the building of new roads; supporting nonmotorized transportation; and using state fuel taxes to support “all transportation modes,” not just highways.

• “Manage traffic through congestion pricing tools and incentivize low-carbon transportation options through comprehensive commuter programs.”

• “Link transportation and land use in transportation plans, implement smart growth and growth management policies, and promote transit oriented development.”

• Set per capita transportation greenhouse gas or VMT reduction targets.

 At the same time, the authors call for changes at the federal level that could push the states to alter their transportation strategies. These include having the federal government:

• “Set specific GHG emissions reduction targets for the transportation sector.”

• “Establish GHG emission impacts from transportation plans and projects as a criterion for receiving federal aid.”

• Update financing and funding formulas “to reward reductions in driving, VMT, and fuel consumption, instead of rewarding increases in these areas.” Currently states are financially rewarded for having their vehicular traffic increase — which only encourages more pollution and more sprawl.

• “Dedicate revenue from GHG fees to fund clean transportation investment.”

The report builds on a 2009 study, Moving Cooler An analysis of Transportation Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions (reported on here), prepared by the consulting firm Cambridge Systematics.

California is cited for its Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375), which seeks to link land use decisions to transportation funding. “While the concept behind this law might be implemented differently in other states, the general approach is an excellent model,” the new report says. The California act has four key components:

  1. The state sets an overall GHG reduction target for the transportation sector.
  2. The state works with regions to establish a regional share of responsibility for meeting those targets.
  3. Regions develop growth plans (aided by the state through technical assistance if needed) that demonstrate the agreed level of reductions, balanced with other transportation goals.
  4. State transportation funding is then prioritized according to these plans, and development incentives are offered to support them.

The report also cites Massachusetts’ GreenDOT initiative, which was launched last June after the state’s numerous transportation authorities were organized into a newly unified Massachusetts Department of Transportation. GreenDOT focuses on reducing GHG emissions, promoting healthy transportation options, and supporting “smarter, more efficient growth and development.”

It sets a goal of reducing emissions in the transportation sector by 7.3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and reducing them by a total of 12.3 percent by 2050. “This makes MassDOT the first DOT in the country to adopt specific targets to reduce GHG emissions,” the report notes.

North Carolina ranked a dismal 37th in the report, which is based on data from 2005 through 2008. But Jim Westmoreland, deputy secretary for transit in the North Carolina Department of Transportation, participated in the report’s release and said that since the inception of Governor Bev Perdue’s administration in 2009, the state has launched several initiatives, including establishment of a Transportation Intergovernmental Policy Advisory Group.

The intergovernmental group aims to achieve better coordination of land use planning and transportation investment. A statewide Complete Streets Policy was adopted in 2009, and North Carolina has also been promised $545 million in federal stimulus funds toward establishing high-speed passenger rail service between Charlotte and Washington, DC, Westmoreland said.

Also last June, Colorado became the 13th state to adopt Complete Streets legislation. That policy commits the state to meeting the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians as well as others affected by the transportation network.

A huge amount of progress is needed, according to “Getting Back on Track.” “None of the states’ transportation policies are likely to support robust GHG reductions to the extent demanded by current climate science,” the report emphasizes.

“States are not connecting the dots,” lamented Colin Peppard, deputy director of federal transportation policy for NRDC. Only three states received 75 of the 100 points possible in the report’s scorecard. Twelve states scored 25 points or fewer. Peppard argued that states should be allocating more of their own funds — not just federal funds — to transit projects.  

Despite Maryland’s No. 2 ranking, that state was criticized for its recent decision to build a six-lane, 18-mile, tolled outer beltway in the suburbs north of the nation’s capital. That road “will increase GHG emissions in the entire Washington metropolitan area by 11 percent in 2030,” the report predicts.

Climate-sensitive policies are not anti-business, said Mott Smith, principal in Civic Enterprise Associates, a smart-growth-oriented real estate development firm in Los Angeles. There’s a new generation, mostly of younger developers, that "wants to build in existing towns and cities,” he said. “Those who build in cities are busy right now.”

Policies intended to guard against climate change “help us get our projects approved,” Smith said. “We see this as boosting good business.”

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