Should a Climate Bill Even Try to Fight Sprawl?

The potential for a cap-and-trade climate bill to set aside significant amounts of money for reforming local land use and transportation planning is often touted by Democrats, environmental groups, and this particular Streetsblogger.

sb375.jpgShould the approach California used in SB 375 (being signed into law above) be applied to a congressional cap-and-trade climate bill? (Photo: EcoVote)

But what does Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board and administrator of the state’s landmark effort to cut emissions by changing development patterns, think of the idea of tackling sprawl via climate legislation?

"I don’t necessarily think SB 375 [the California land-use bill] should be in a cap-and-trade bill," Nichols said today during a session of today’s Transportation Research Board (TRB) conference devoted to climate change.

The provocative question of how important a congressional climate bill would be to transportation was first raised by EMBARQ program director Nancy Kete, a veteran sustainability advocate.

Asking the TRB audience to consider that "whatever happens on climate change really is not going to have much impact on transportation," Kete praised the climate bill’s grants for transit and land-use planning but described them as unsuitable for achieving "significant, short-term" pollution reduction.

Nichols’ uncertain perspective on the path to addressing transportation — which produces 40 percent of California’s emissions and 30 percent of total U.S. CO2 — through climate legislation may surprise some, but it tracks with what she described as an "unsettled" political climate surrounding the issue of pollution limits.

Indeed, Nichols’ remarks today emphasized the importance of a federal climate plan that did not attempt to preempt the regulations of individual states, and California is one of several seeking a go-slow approach to greenhouse gas restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

So if climate change legislation, which faces considerable resistance from Senate Democrats, isn’t the vehicle to begin remodeling the nation’s transportation planning system, what is? Kete proposed a shift in focus to the six-year federal transport bill — though its political future is as murky as the climate measure’s.

Yet Kete’s suggestion brought a telling remark from John Stoody, an aide to conservative GOP senator Kit Bond (MO).

Bond has fought the proposed Senate climate bill tooth and nail, releasing a report that used some dubious math to re-brand it as a "$3.6 trillion gas tax." Such heated rhetoric suggests that Bond would be opposed to higher fuel taxes in any form, but Stoody suggested that a gas-fee increase would be on the table to help fund a new transportation bill.

Referring to estimates that climate legislation would increase gas prices by anywhere from about three cents per gallon to 13 cents per gallon every year, Stoody said: "If the cap-and-trade bill is sucking that amount of money out of the system … that much more money [is unavailable] to pay for a highway bill."

Stoody wondered aloud whether the climate bill’s projected effect on fuel prices "actually hurt[s] prospects for a highway bill."

Given Bond’s record, Stoody’s assessment is unlikely to dissuade transportation reformers and green advocates from pursuing both a new transportation bill and a climate bill that dedicates new grants to local planning.

But Nichols’ and Kete’s inclination to look beyond Congress for emissions-cutting land use changes could signal the shape of things to come as the midterm elections approach and Washington’s already meager appetite for political risk grows even thinner.

  • DC

    AASHTO has echoed Stoody’s concern several times, despite the ~$80 billion for transportation in the Senate bill. It’s a reactionary point of view indicative of a rudderless industry whose only response to the climate and energy challenge seems to be “not our problem,” and only idea for righting the transportation ship is “give us more money with fewer strings attached.”

  • The blog is misleading because I believe that Waxman-Markey contains powerful incentives for states to coordinate their transportation and land-use plans with greenhouse gas reduction targets. And we support other efforts that build on California’s new law, the Sustainable Communities Strategy and Climate Protection Act (Senate Bill 375). I am still hopeful that Congress will pass meaningful climate legislation this year, but I don’t think we need to wait. Incentives for including climate in transportation planning can and should be included in other federal legislation that may pass, particularly a new transportation funding bill.
    — Mary D. Nichols, Chairman
    California Air Resources Board
    ________________________________________

  • Hi Mary – The post was not intended to represent your remarks as critical of the Waxman-Markey bill or the Senate EPW approach, merely to raise the prospect of looking at alternative vehicles for incentivizing the coordination to which you refer. If you’d like to expand on the other legislative options that may be possible, apart from the climate bill and transportation reauthorization, please let us know.

  • Thank you, Elana. My posting was intended to clarify my remarks. I didn’t mean to say your report was in error.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

White House Staying Quiet For Now on Transit’s Role in Climate Bill

|
Delivering his climate-change message to Congress yesterday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned that fuel-efficiency advances secured by the Obama administration would not be enough to reduce emissions from transportation — not without encouraging Americans to drive less. Transportation Secretary LaHood said today he’ll weigh in later on climate-change money for transit. (Photo: HillBuzz) But when […]

Transportation Allowances in the Climate Bill: A Tale of Two Modes

|
To understand why the climate change bill is a top priority for urbanists, it’s crucial to understand the emissions allowances that the legislation distributes. The allowances essentially put the "trade" in "cap-and-trade" — whichever industry or state government holds them can benefit from their monetary value or use them to emit pollution under the "cap." […]

EPA Chief Urges a More Urban Environmentalism to Fight Climate Change

|
With Congress returning to work next week after a month away from Washington, a national dialogue long dominated by health care is about to open to the long-awaited Senate debate on climate change. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson (Photo: Legal Planet) But industry-funded efforts to derail legislative action are already receiving undeservedly credible coverage in the […]

The ‘Elitism’ Trap Migrates From Transport Reform to Climate Change

|
Transportation debates have a terminology all their own, whether arcane ("multi-modal"), hard to define ("subsidies"), or outright misleading — as is the case with "elitism," the standard line that road-building acolytes often apply to those who suggest that the government focus more on expanding transit and other forms of clean transport. Climate bill coauthors: Reps. […]

EPA Air Chief: We Need to Do More to Reduce VMT

|
Obama administration officials "need to align together" to work on reducing the nation’s total vehicle miles traveled — work that should go beyond a pending congressional climate bill — the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air-quality chief said today. Gina McCarthy, EPA’s top air pollution regulator. (Photo: CECE) Gina McCarthy, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and […]