Opening the Door on Earth Day to a Historic Clean Transportation Rule

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Each year, the U.S. pumps billions of dollars into building more highways and roads but the states and cities that benefit have never been asked to measure how much carbon pollution the cars and trucks that use those roads help generate.

In the home stretch of President Obama’s push to combat climate change, the White House has proposed a new rule to require just that. It’s part of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, known as MAP-21. And, it is available for comment today—as we celebrate Earth Day—with its publication in the Federal Register.

The rule would, for the first time, link climate effects with land use and infrastructure, making state and local leaders accountable for the greenhouse gases produced by vehicles on their roadways. The administration wants to finalize the rule before the end of the year.

To many in the regulatory and environmental world, this is a bold move, at least symbolically. The rule doesn’t tie specific goals to projects or impose penalties, but the idea that regional growth patterns and transportation investments should be linked to climate impacts is new—even though intuitively it makes so much sense.

Road builders, lobbyists and some others worry that making states and cities accountable for the effects of what they build will have unforeseen negative outcomes. They caution that it could lead to fewer roads and delays on other infrastructure projects. But many forward-thinking governors and other officials already embrace this as a necessary step in the transition to cleaner transportation, better air quality and health for all Americans. They see it as economic opportunity in the form of green innovation.

Besides, we already know the model works.

California, for example, passed the nation’s first law linking carbon emissions, land use and transportation. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB375 in 2008.

What the state already knew—and what the Obama administration understands—is that transportation emissions are rising substantially, making up 27 percent of emissions nationally, and as much as 40 percent in states like California. And fuel efficiency standards alone won’t get us to our climate goals.

But we might get there if we create more walkable communities, develop more and better public transportation, expand the use of electric vehicles and buses, and promote mobility innovation such as real-time ridesharing and other on-demand mobility choices. These are all potential long-term payoffs of a rule like this.

California’s law, for example, required regions to create Sustainable Communities Strategies to cut carbon pollution from transportation. The Southern California Association of Governments came to realize that the process benefited not only the environment and public health, but also its economy—lowering costs for households and local governments. The state’s plan invested nearly half of the total $524 billion in public transportation, funded 12 major transit expansion projects in Los Angeles alone, and increased funding for safe walking and bicycling. And it has paid off tremendously:  it’s projected to reduce traffic congestion 24 percent per capita despite an increase of 4 million residents, and it will plan to locate most of the region’s jobs within walking distance from a train or bus stop.

In California, we’re seeing that this idea helps improve public health, cuts the cost of transportation and provides California residents with transportation choices other than owning expensive cars—which is often a real barrier to mobility and opportunity for low-income and middle class Americans.   

Nationally, this would be a powerful step forward. It would increase transparency and accountability in making sure every land-use and planning decision considers the carbon pollution it would create and tries to mitigate it.

All communities deserve these benefits. 

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