Time for States to Step Up on Clean Transportation

June 12, 2017 | Will Toor

When President Donald Trump recently walked away from the Paris Climate Agreement, his decision spurred many states, cities and businesses nationwide to step up their own push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what the federal government does or doesn’t do.

One key area for action is transforming America’s transportation systems. Cars and trucks are now the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. Emissions from electricity generation are declining due to the combination of energy efficiency improvements, coal plant retirements and increasing deployment of wind and solar power. Meanwhile, emissions from transportation have been growing because substitutes for gasoline and diesel fuels haven’t yet gained widespread market acceptance.  To reverse the upswing in the transportation sector’s emissions, and to start achieving deep reductions, the United States will need policies that help people transition from gas and diesel cars to electric vehicles, and to meet their daily needs without having to drive for every trip.

What Uncle Sam Had Been Doing Right

Federal leadership is important on this issue. Over the last few years, the federal government had begun to take some important steps including:

  • Adopting federal standards requiring the carbon pollution from new cars to be cut in half by 2025 (and save consumers over a trillion dollars at the pump);
  • Creating a new greenhouse gas performance measure for states and metropolitan regions that get federal transportation money, requiring them to plan to reduce carbon pollution;
  • Creating a wide variety of programs to support widespread adoption of electric vehicles; and
  • Creating new programs like the TIGER grants to encourage local governments to develop multi-modal transportation options that give more people real choices to walk, bike, or take transit.

What the New Administration Plans to Undo

Unfortunately, many of these gains are now under threat. The Trump administration has:

  • Begun the process to roll back emissions standards for cars;
  • Placed the greenhouse gas performance measure on hold;
  • Proposed to eliminate TIGER and drastically scale back all federal transit dollars;
  • Begun to scale back many federal programs supporting the transition to electric vehicles;
  • The administration has even threatened to attack states’ right to clean up their own air!

Ironically, these federal policy rollbacks don’t just hurt our climate. They threaten American jobs, punish consumers by making them spend  more money  on gas, make our communities less safe, and will mean that more Americans will suffer from asthma and other disease associated with air pollution. Westerners need to let our federal policy makers know that we don’t support these changes.

What Actions States and Local Governments Have Taken

But we also need to act locally. There is plenty that state and local governments can do to even in the absence of federal action. Several important programs already are taking place across the Southwest, such as:

What Other Steps States and Cities Can Take on Their Own

But we need to step up and do much more. Some of the most important things that states across the Southwest should consider include:

  • Every state could adopt meaningful incentives to help consumers adopt electric vehicles;
  • States have the ability to adopt an alternative set of clean car standards, as 12 states have already done, that would ensure that cars sold in these states are more efficient and will emit less carbon pollution even if the federal government abandons the standards;
  • Every state could create programs to encourage utilities to support EV adoption;
  • States can adopt their own planning standards requiring the state transportation department and metropolitan areas to plan their transportation systems in ways that reduce carbon pollution;
  • Every state could focus more attention on investing in multi-modal transportation to meet our diverse needs instead of primarily focusing on expanding highways.

The opportunities here are tremendous. Our states can show how a smart approach to transportation will make our region a better place to live and work– with cleaner air, more money in consumer’s pockets, and a thriving economy ­-‑ while also steadily reducing our contribution to global climate change. 

Will Toor serves as the Director of the Transportation Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. He previously was a Boulder County Commissioner; Mayor of Boulder, Colorado; and chairman of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. He played a strong role in the development of the Boulder community transit network, EcoPass unlimited access transit pass, ClimateSmart Loan program and EnergySmart program.