Federal Highway Administration Proposes Greenhouse Gas Rule

With historic investments in infrastructure coming from the bipartisan legislation, this rule is coming at a crucial moment.

Credit: Photo by kaleb tapp on Unsplash

A critical question about federal investments is whether we the public are getting our money’s worth.

That’s a key question, especially for the federal and state highway administrations, which are the primary recipients of the historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure law. Does safety improve? Are we getting closer to a 100 percent State of Good Repair for pothole-riddled roads and collapsing bridges? And are we getting better environmental performance, particularly reduced pollution, increased climate resilience, and reduced fuel consumption?

That last question is answered most recently by an exciting new proposed rule from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), to measure, set targets to improve, and issue progress reports about the greenhouse gas performance of our transportation system. It was unveiled this morning in an announcement that also highlighted eight major programs delivering $27 billion of clean transportation investments, courtesy of the historic infrastructure law, which will help to achieve better environmental performance as per the newly proposed rule.

Whether it is a corner store or a large company, it is a maxim that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. To determine whether the billions of dollars being invested in transportation are delivering these outcomes, it makes sense that highway agencies should be measuring them.

But believe it or not, only in the past couple of decades have public officials gotten serious about measuring the performance of our transportation system. Thanks to the 2012 transportation law, some key performance metrics are now used by state and federal agencies to assess the outcomes of transportation investments. Specifically, those used so far fit into three buckets: safety, infrastructure condition, and air pollution.

What FHWA just proposed is a new measurement requirement for itself and its grantees (state highway agencies and metropolitan planning organizations or MPOs) on greenhouse gas pollution. Given that the transportation sector spews the largest share of this pollution in the United States, it’s way past time for public officials to measure and get a handle on it. That’s especially the case since we’re in the first year of implementing the largest investment ever in transportation as part of the historic infrastructure law.

Thanks to work done by FHWA, states, and MPOs, pursuant to the 2012 transportation law, agencies have a decade of practice reporting on different performance measures. This new rule fits perfectly into the existing framework and provides additional transparency about the functioning of our transportation system. And as FHWA deputy administrator Stephanie Pollack notes, “State laws already require 24 states and the District of Columbia to set targets and track their greenhouse gas emissions.” So this rule simply levels up everyone vis-a-vis environmental performance management.

Here’s what this newly proposed rule includes:

  • Measurement: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. To make it easy for states to implement, the rule details the specific method grantees should use to do it. FHWA explains data sets used in the calculations, commits to providing additional factors such as fuel sales and vehicle miles of travel annually, and delivers specific equations to use in calculations.
  • Target-setting: Similar to what is required for the performance measures related to safety and infrastructure conditions, the FHWA has not only required that grantees set targets but that these targets actually require changes in business as usual to improve transportation system performance. States and MPOs have ample flexibility to set targets suited to their circumstances, and in this proposed rule, they must also align with national climate goals for 2030 and 2050 and must be set so emissions decline over time. Additionally, initial targets are due in the fall of 2022. This is important, given that the first anniversary of the historic infrastructure law is also this fall, and investments from it will help achieve performance targets.
  • Geographic coverage: The proposed rule requires measurement of the environmental performance of our National Highway System, which comprises 230,000 miles of our four-million-mile public road network (in case you aren’t aware, our country is crisscrossed with asphalt!). One thing to keep in mind is that a disproportionately large percentage of vehicle miles of travel and, therefore, pollution are generated by traffic on highways—these roads are our most heavily used. One other note about coverage: In addition to states and MPOs, complementary targets are required for urbanized areas that are covered by multiple MPOs. For example, the rule notes that the urbanized area of Boston is covered by 11 (!) MPOs (for context, there are 420 MPOs total nationwide).
  • Reporting and transparency: This is the most important part of getting this rule right. The vision behind the changes to planning in MAP-21 is that our transportation agencies will be able to tell “the performance story” and this will be the chapter on climate change. The good news is that a baseline report as well initial targets are due this fall. States are then required to submit performance reports biennially while MPOs must submit them every four years. These reports will join the growing amount of content on FHWA’s Transportation Performance Management website, providing us all with a better idea of what federal, state, and local agencies are achieving with our taxpayer dollars.

With historic investments in infrastructure coming from the bipartisan legislation, this rule is coming at a crucial moment. A Georgetown Climate Center analysis shows that if these investments are done right, the law will reduce greenhouse gas emissions; done wrong, it will exacerbate the climate crisis. The key is making sure the funds are spent on highway repairs and on alternatives such as charging stations, public transit, and bike lanes. Putting all the new funding into building new highways will bust the climate budget.

NRDC and our allies will be reviewing and commenting on the new rule thoroughly. In the meantime, we welcome this addition to the performance management toolbox. The information generated will help the FHWA and state highway agencies to get serious about climate change, taking advantage of an array of tried-and-true practices for doing so (allies of NRDC lay out many specific ideas in this timely report).

After the publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register, the comment period will last 90 days, and we urge you to submit comments about the new proposal.

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