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Shifting the transportation paradigm in response to climate change

Posted on November 10, 2009 by Jeff Boothe

We have witnessed a convergence between surface transportation policy and climate change on Capitol Hill and within the Obama Administration in the past several months. There appears to be a growing awareness that the surface transportation sector contributes 27 percent to 33 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and that reducing GHGs can't be accomplished solely by improved fuel economy or cleaner burning fuels. Achieving substantial reductions in GHG levels by 2050 will require the adoption of a range of policies, including a broader range of transportation choices; establishing pricing mechanisms through tolling, pay-as-you-go insurance or taxes; and addressing land use, housing and development decisions. The goal of these efforts is to reduce vehicle miles travelled (VMT). This article will review several recent reports and bills currently being considered by Congress that provide some indication of the direction of the policy shifts being considered.

An initial foray into the policy debate was the report, "Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change" which was published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in 2008, that made the case that a "three-legged stool" approach is necessary to reduce GHGs in the surface transportation sector - improved fuel economy, cleaner burning fuels and smart growth. Even if the first two policies are adopted, the report contends that the expected growth in driving will offset the reductions realized by each of these other policy initiatives. Thus, compact growth is needed to reduce the need to drive, while also providing expanded transportation choices.

Reducing emissions

Two recent reports also make this same point. ULI issued "Moving Cooler; An Analysis of Transportation Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions" in July 2009, which analyzed the impact of a range of policy choices and quantified their impact on reducing GHGs. These policy choices were grouped by the nature of the policy and the time frame for implementation. Among the choices considered were increasing the frequency of service; lowering fares to increase ridership and increased investment in new service across all modes of public transportation; increasing the price of or restricting the availability of parking in central business districts; and shifting development so that it is better served by transit.

The Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies of Science released "Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use and CO2 Emissions" on September 1, 2009. The TRB Report found that VMT has grown three times faster than population since 1980 and increasing density, combined with better street connectivity and public transportation, can produce a 25 percent reduction in VMT.

The Obama Administration has embraced many of the policy choices set forth in these reports in testimony before Congress and the advancement of initiatives to promote livability and sustainability. U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood spoke to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on July 14, 2009, and stated that the U.S. has taken a leadership role in reducing GHGs through increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks by raising those standards to 30.2 miles per gallon in 2011 and 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Further, Secretary LaHood stated that, "Addressing VMT growth plays a key role in decreasing transportation related GHG emissions and should be included in overall efforts to prevent climate change. One way to achieve significant reductions in VMT is to develop more livable communities." The specific policy proposals he put forward include proving more transportation choices - walking, bicycling, and transit - promote development of housing in close proximity to transit and mixed-use development.

Funding shift

Congress has also embraced these policy initiatives in legislation currently being considered. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit reported legislation in June 2009 to authorize the surface transportation program. The draft bill proposes to shift overall funding from an 82:18 split between highways and transit to a 75:25 split by 2015, it proposes to establish performance measures for system expansion projects that include assessing the impacts of those projects on GHG emissions and energy consumption, and creating new programs that promote energy efficiency and reduction in GHGs. Congress is working on extending the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), while it seeks to identify a funding source to grow federal investment in surface transportation.

Establish Emissions Goals

On June 26, 2009, the House passed HR 2454, American Clean Energy and Security Act, which includes section 222 that amends the Clean Air Act by establishing national transportation emission goals, standardizing transportation models and methodologies for collecting data and measuring reduction in GHGs; requiring the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. DOT to assess progress toward achieving those goals every six years; requiring metropolitan planning organizations and states to develop GHG targets and strategies for achieving the targets through investments in public transit and efforts to increasing bicycling and walking; and, providing a modest amount of investment through states to fund these targeted investments. Sen.s John Kerry (D-Mass) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently introduced S. 1733, the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act that will incorporate the planning provisions of the House bill and is expected to provide more funding for surface transportation activities to help states and MPOs to achieve targets developing under the planning process. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to report S. 1733 but passage by the end of the 2009 is uncertain.

Jeff Boothe is a principal with Washington, D.C.-based Holland & Knight LLP.

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