A Revolutionary Step toward a Lasting Legacy on Clean Transportation

Highway interchange
Credit: pixabay.com

The Administration has accomplished a lot on climate action—decisive steps such as the Clean Power Plan and commitments made at the historic Paris climate conference last year.

In fact, one of President Obama’s first actions was to boost clean vehicle fuel efficiency standards to record highs, making the nation’s 250 million cars and trucks travel farther on less gas, delivering multiple public health and economic benefits.

Now, he has a chance to make one of his last actions be an enduring legacy for the future of transportation and the environment.

On April 22 (Earth Day), the Department of Transportation officially proposed new performance standards for transportation infrastructure. As Secretary Anthony Foxx stated, “We are…taking a hard look at how to track progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.”

This is a crucial new chance to tackle climate change. Even as vehicles become cleaner, total car and truck traffic has doubled since the 1970s, jeopardizing progress toward slowing and reversing climate change over the long term. The president and secretary of transportation have the means and the duty to require about 350 state transportation agencies and little-known important local agencies called “metropolitan planning organizations” to specifically track carbon pollution—the key driver of climate change—in their transportation plans and systems, and seek ways to reduce it. This is revolutionary because states and local jurisdictions have never been called on to take carbon pollution into account when building roads or other transportation infrastructure. Think about it: We set standards and pass laws to require that carmakers produce fuel efficient vehicles, and then we build bigger highways and roads to accommodate endless numbers of those vehicles. Having a larger volume of fuel-efficient cars—in most cases, one for every person on the road—won’t solve our carbon pollution problem. We have to offer policy frameworks to help states and cities reduce overall traffic by asking them to at least measure how much more carbon pollution a new road is likely to generate.

Every year, about $50 billion of our tax dollars are granted to metropolitan planning agencies across the country, and the agencies are required to develop long-range transportation plans for those investments (coupled with local and state tax dollars).

Now, for the first time those plans will be subjected to requirements to manage performance based on specific outcomes, as you would expect from any portfolio of investments. That includes “on-road mobile source emissions,” which is how policy wonks refer to the air pollution from our tailpipes, including smog and soot. Local and state agencies already monitor air quality. Carbon emissions from cars are just another type of air pollution that should be monitored and reduced by local and state agencies as part of their planning programs.

After all, cars and trucks account for some one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The new rule would come under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21, the 2012 transportation law, and the administration is now seeking comment from local jurisdictions and other stakeholders.

As one senior DOT official described the rule to POLITICO recently: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure. This is groundbreaking stuff.”

The plan, which we hope will be finalized before the end of the year, may be groundbreaking for the administration, but it’s nothing to fear. It’s simply “the logical next step,” as my colleague Deron Lovaas told Politico.

And, more than that, the effect of making state, regional and local planners take climate effects into consideration in building transportation infrastructure, we suspect, will be to change thinking in no small way. In addition to reducing the impact new roads would have on carbon pollution, this new orientation could help increase public transit, safe bikeways and pedestrian walkways and create new transportation options that improve our lives.

As a country, we need to stop asking ourselves how we can adapt our towns and cities to the needs of increasing traffic. We need to start asking  how we can accommodate the needs of people—by providing more  equal access to transportation, improving their health and prosperity, and lifting their quality of life. Together, let’s get this new plan on the road. 

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