Clean Transportation Could Turbocharge Northeast’s Economy

With smart policies and clean technologies like zero emission vehicles, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states have an opportunity to build a 21st century transportation system that saves money, creates jobs, and protects public health.

Metro Transit via Flickr

A clean and modern transportation system that gets people to work, school, recreation, and businesses safely and efficiently is a prerequisite for a robust economy in the 21st century. As evidence, look no further than Amazon's requirement that the city it selects for its second headquarters—and 50,000 new full-time employees—have accessible mass transit, low traffic congestion, and other sustainable mobility options like biking and walking. Modernizing transportation is about more than just Amazon of course. It’s also about attracting a host of other economic opportunities and jobs, and improving people’s daily lives—including their commutes. Done right, it will increase safety and reduce pollution, which will protect and improve public health and help tackle climate change too.

Today, seven Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and D.C. announced their intent to capture these opportunities by moving forward to update and upgrade the region’s aging transportation system. They have good reason to do so: a study for these states by the Georgetown Climate Center found that investing in a clean and modern transportation system could put $14.4 billion more in families’ pocketbooks, thanks to reduced congestion and lower vehicle operating costs; create more than 100,000 new jobs; and grow the region’s economy by $17.7 billion in 2030 alone.

Over the course of the next year, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have committed to hold a series of public listening sessions with the region’s stakeholders. These sessions will provide opportunities for stakeholders to weigh in on what they want to see and get out of their transportation system in the years ahead, and the policy solutions needed to achieve these goals. 

NRDC looks forward to working with the states and other stakeholders to build a 21st century Northeast and Mid-Atlantic transportation system. By investing in clean technologies, including more efficient and electric-powered vehicles; walkable, bikeable, and transit-friendly communities; and expanded mobility options for both urban and rural residents, we can achieve a system that is cleaner, more equitable, and more efficient. But we need the right plans and policies to get there, and today’s announcement is a key step in the right direction.

Growing the economy, improving public health, and cutting climate pollution

There are many important goals for modernizing our multi-use transportation system. One is to turbocharge our economy through investments that reduce traffic jams and provide greater access to jobs and economic opportunities across the region. Another is to cut pollution, which is a drag on public health and economic growth and places disproportionately high burdens on low-income communities and communities of color. Transportation is a major source of soot, smog, and toxic air pollutants, and is the largest source of climate-disrupting carbon pollution in the region.

A 2015 analysis by the Georgetown Climate Center and Cambridge Systematics found that investing in a modern, clean transportation system would lead to significant benefits across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. In addition to the year 2030 benefits cited above, the study found that over a 15-year period these investments could:

  • Create 1.1 million job-years (a job-year equals one-year of full-time work for one-person),
  • Add $144 billion to the region’s economy, and
  • Increase personal disposable income by $109 billion.

The report also found that by lowering pollution these investments could:

  • Save more than 700 lives,
  • Prevent 42,850 asthma attacks, and
  • Generate public health benefits worth more than $6.8 billion.

Importantly, such investments would also cut carbon pollution from transportation—by 39 percent in the scenario that generates the economic and public health benefits above. In the states behind today’s announcement, transportation accounts for 43 percent of carbon pollution, and this share is growing as the electric sector increasingly moves toward clean power sources.

The transportation sector is the largest source of carbon pollution in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. Data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

To prevent the worsening impacts of climate change, we must tackle transportation emissions. As NRDC’s report on “America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Future” shows, we have the tools and technologies we need to get there, including more efficient and electric vehicles and expanded mobility options that enable people to drive less. But we need the right policies in place to capture these opportunities.  

Continuing the region’s impressive track record of cooperation and success

The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic economy and transportation networks are interconnected, from the I-95 corridor to the many other state and federal highways, local roads, bus lines, trains, bikeways, and pedestrian corridors that stretch across the region. While individual states and local communities are critical to identify transportation needs and opportunities, creating a robust, flexible, and clean transportation system that gets people and goods where they need to go will also require regional cooperation, as today’s announcement recognizes.

States in this region have a long and impressive history of working together. Nine states, including the states that made today’s announcement, have worked together over the last decade under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to cut pollution in the power sector, while generating billions of dollars in economic growth, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars (with billions more in savings expected) on their energy bills. RGGI’s regional, market-based approach has been so successful that its bipartisan state governors recently doubled down on the program by committing to a new round of ambitious carbon pollution cuts through 2030.

As the region’s governors look to modernize transportation, RGGI offers a compelling model of cooperation and success.

Moving forward, other jurisdictions in the region, such as New Jersey, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, should also look to join in this discussion to modernize transportation and develop a regional system that is cleaner and works better for us all.

About the Authors

Bruce Ho

Senior Energy Advocate, Energy & Transportation program

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project, Energy & Transportation program
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