Transforming Transportation for a Cleaner, Healthier Future

Andreas Komodromos via Flickr/Creative Commons license

In the final days of 2018, progress is beginning, as it often does, in the states and communities. A new bipartisan and expanding alliance has just launched the year’s biggest move against the growing dangers of climate change.

Nine governors from Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, and the mayor of Washington, D.C., have committed to developing a regional clean transportation system that will bring communities together, promote economic growth and create a sustainable world.

They aim to cut tailpipe emissions that are driving climate change, while transforming a decaying, dirty and ineffective network into a modern, healthier system that ensures equitable air pollution reductions as well as new clean transportation opportunities for all communities in the region.

The timing is superb. There’s no question we need to transition away from the dirty fossil fuels that are negatively changing our climate to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future, including our transportation system.

There’s renewed urgency to act now, following recent national and international reports warning that we’re on the road to climate catastrophe, and we’ll get there sooner than expected.

The governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Virginia and the mayor of D.C. got the message. They are showing how states and cities can move ahead to address the central environmental challenge of our time—even if the president won’t.

Transforming transportation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic can be an important contributor to getting the job done. The governors and mayor have committed to developing a regional policy in 2019 that would be implemented after that. Their goal is to reduce carbon, create jobs and spur economic growth, while sharing the benefits equitably across the region and ensure equitable pollution reductions in underserved communities.

All communities—in urban, suburban and rural areas—would become more livable, healthy and equipped with better transportation options. This leadership would be welcome anytime, but especially now in the face of President Trump’s intransigence on climate action.

A clean transportation system should start with setting a cap on carbon emissions from vehicle fuels that declines over time to achieve meaningful pollution reductions. Transportation now is the largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S., having passed power plants which have seen a decline because of market forces and emission reduction policies. It’s time to tackle this top contributor to climate change.

To ensure we meet this cap, investments then should flow to improve public transit—bus, subway and train services—in rural, suburban and urban communities. Communities also will need more pedestrian walkways and bike paths so people can get to work without driving. This will make streets that today sound like heavy metal concerts—fine in stadiums not so much in neighborhoods—quieter. And people won’t be coughing as much from bus and truck diesel exhaust.

A clean transportation system should, as well, extend transportation service options into urban, suburban, and rural areas where those with the least resources and most vulnerable live.

Throughout the region, the infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs) should be expanded, and states and local communities should set goals to replace their aging fossil-fueled bus fleets with EVs. A number of other suggestions and options are outlined in a report the Natural Resources Defense Council released earlier this year, Transportation Reimagined: A Roadmap for Clean and Modern Transportation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Region

The case for bold moves is all around us. Today our planet is suffering from carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Global temperatures are climbing. Seas are rising. Droughts are lengthening. Crops are frying. Storms, wildfires and floods are intensifying.

Our swirling blue home is telling us in every possible way it’s time for a U-turn. It’s heartening to see a new generation emerging calling for urgent action, believing that, with the right kind of American leadership—and the alliance of governors and D.C.’s mayor is a good example—we can avoid, or at least diminish the ravages of a climate catastrophe.

It is, of course, discouraging to see the White House throwing us in reverse. The Trump administration remains resolved to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, and it’s working to roll back protections that would curb carbon from power plants and vehicles.

Fortunately, we’re already heading in the right direction. Clean energy jobs are expanding. Wind and solar power is surging. More electric vehicles are on the road every day.

As a result, our country’s carbon emissions have been falling over the last decade, although they edged up last year because, in part, low gas prices prompted people to drive more.

Enter the alliance of Northeast and Mid-Atlantic leaders. Cutting back on the tons of carbon emissions sent into the skies from vehicles will benefit all Americans. Moreover, fixing the transportation system will help the roughly 70 million people who live in the region. Everyone, it seems, has a transportation tale of woe.

Across our country it’s often local leaders who step forward to work on solutions to improve people’s lives. The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic governors and D.C.’s mayor are following that tradition. They are demonstrating that we can tackle an enormous environmental challenge and do so in ways that build a more just, equitable and safe future for our children and future generations.

They are showing the nation, and other nations, what leadership on climate looks like.

While such strong leadership and commitment from these states is a huge win for the region, we’re shocked and deeply disappointed that New York is noticeably missing, given Governor Cuomo’s bold climate announcement yesterday. If he’s serious about climate action, then New York must join this groundbreaking commitment without delay. Anything less would be a failure of leadership. We urge the governor to join with fellow neighboring states spearheading the charge to ensure New Yorkers also benefit from the clean and modern transportation future that this regional initiative promises to unlock.

About the Authors

Kit Kennedy

Senior Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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