Driving Transportation Performance to Solve Climate Change

The Federal Highway Administration has proposed a new greenhouse gas performance measurement rule. NRDC and more than 100,000 others wrote to support it, read more here.

Vehicle traffic drives climate change

Credit: Photo by Karl Callwood on Unsplash

Entering the fall of 2022, we see signs that climate change is upon us. This year is on track to join the top 10 list of warmest years ever. Heat waves swept across the world, with temperatures marking new records in cities, including Sacramento (116 degrees), London (104 degrees), and Delhi (120 degrees). And another extreme weather event—Hurricane Ian—is now the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935.

The transportation sector is the leading driver of greenhouse gas pollution in the United States, contributing to the unfolding global climate crisis. Surface transportation—cars, buses, trucks, you name it—accounts for the lion’s share. How can we solve this challenge?

Fortunately, a law dating back a decade—Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21)—created the tool kit that federal and state transportation agencies use to develop strategies to address big priorities such as this one. That law requires the use of a strategic Transportation Performance Management framework.

Already, the U.S. Department of Transportation has put in place these performance standards for road safety, freight movement, air quality, pavement and bridge condition, and reliability. These are commonsense ways to achieve a whole array of ends we care about as a society. Along with measurement and improvement in safety as well as bridge and road conditions, this system also prioritizes environmental sustainability.

These performance measures are designed to carry out key statutory objectives, namely: ensuring a more efficient, transparent, and purposeful investment of federal funds by directing state departments of transportation (state DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to set performance-driven transportation targets. Congress established these objectives as recently as 2012 and 2015 with the passage of the MAP-21 and 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) acts. Together, these acts established performance management requirements for the Federal-Aid Highway Program and tasked the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) with carrying them out.

And now FHWA has proposed a new performance measure for this system: greenhouse gas emissions from our highway system. This newly proposed rule requires state DOTs and MPOs to measure greenhouse gas emissions from road use, set declining targets to reduce those emissions, and report on performance on a regular basis. As with previous performance measures, this is a big-picture way of assessing how our taxpayer dollars are being invested to achieve national goals.

So, it’s no surprise that the proposal has attracted a huge amount of support, possibly the most ever for a proposed transportation rule. The last time a version of this rule was proposed in 2016, the overall tally of comments in support versus those opposed was about 16-to-1, with a lot of filings, especially from cities and MPOs. This time, the docket is even more lopsided, with more than 100,000 supportive comments—possibly the most ever for a transportation rule—and very little opposition.

There’s a strong showing from members of Congress for the first time, with 58 U.S. House representatives and 28 U.S. senators signing letters of strong support for the proposed rule (versus nine senators filing a letter of opposition). And this time, there were two supportive filings from a set of states—10 states and the District of Columbia filed a letter of support early in the comment period, bookended with a second filing joined by the same set of states in the form of a set of helpful technical comments.

A larger number of nongovernmental organizations also commented this time, including environmental and social justice organizations rallying under the banners of the National Campaign for Transit Justice and the Transportation Equity Caucus. Our ally Rails-to-Trails Conservancy not only filed comments but tracked other filings and found that out of 85 nongovernmental organizations filing comments, only two were opposed. And while states were divided in their positions, with filings from governors, state DOTs, state attorneys general, and state environmental agencies, overall, Rails-to-Trails found that about two-thirds of governmental groups (i.e., including local jurisdictions like those represented by our ally National Association of City Transportation Officials) submitted supportive comments.

As for NRDC, we joined with three sister organizations—Earthjustice, Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Sierra Club—to submit detailed comments. The first half of our filing lays out the background, legal underpinnings, and benefits of the proposed rule. The second half opens with support for the rule as written, then offers technical advice and a large set of ideas for improvements.

Specifically, we comment on:

  • Measurement: While we agree with FHWA’s proposed method for measuring emissions—it is very simple, relying on national data sets for vehicle miles of travel and fuel consumption—we also note that one option allowed for MPOs is more bottom-up and would allow for better analysis. We also request the option to measure emissions on all public roads, not just national highways. And we ask for reporting on per capita emissions to supplement the emissions metric.
  • Target setting: We strongly agree with the proposal to set declining targets, which is in line with what science tells us is needed vis-à-vis emission reductions and the philosophy of several states that set aspirational targets. We provide much more advice in our comments on target-setting methodology. We also answer a question posed by FHWA in the proposed rule: Yes, states and MPOs should set longer-term 8- and 20-year targets in addition to the two- and four-year targets required by the rule, since they already perform long-range planning and emissions reduction, which requires a long view toward a declining trajectory.
  • Reporting: This is a crucial component of this rulemaking, and we provide plenty of advice about sharing information in a timely and digestible manner. Thankfully, there is increasing interest in using visualization techniques and other means to portray data online and in print, which helps to tell a story about the data collected as part of performance management. It’s important that content be robust, publication of it be timely, and the format help the public make sense of it all.
  • Consequences: We offer three pieces of specific advice: 1) Require planners to outline specific actions necessary to achieve targets; 2) if possible, provide incentives for setting meaningful targets; and 3) explore other ways to tie consequences to effective implementation of this performance measure.
  • Metropolitan Planning Organizations: The reporting requirements for states and MPOs should be the same.
  • Transportation Planning and Programming: We suggest that Transportation Performance Management serve as a vehicle for coordinating other state planning and programming, adding the newly approved National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program and forthcoming Carbon Reduction Program strategies to long-standing and regularly updated Statewide Transportation Improvement Programs.

With a parade of more than 100,000 supporters, including 86 members of Congress and many state and local jurisdictions, FHWA is now poised to step up and lead the way. We urge the agency to move ahead with a final rulemaking as soon as possible, for the sake of our communities, our families, and our future.

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