In the absence of strong guidance from the federal government on climate policy and carbon emissions, states are left to their own devices. And since transportation is the number two source of carbon emissions, accounting for 31 percent of the total, state-level transportation reform must play a large role in any serious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Smart Growth America just teamed up to release a new study of states’ efforts between 2005 and 2008. The verdict? “Most states do not make any effort at all to connect transportation policy with climate change and energy goals, and some put in place systems that effectively sabotage these goals.”
NRDC and SGA want to see states invest in public transportation, support smart growth policies and transit-oriented development, and set traffic reduction targets (using tools like congestion prices to reach them).
The authors looked at a variety of policies they say can be applied all over the country, in cities, small towns and rural areas.
California scored highest, with an overall score of 82 out of 100, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. Mott Smith, a smart growth-minded real estate developer based in Los Angeles, said he’s pleased to be living in a state that is getting so much right. “But I hope our leaders don’t get the wrong idea that they can just relax and rest on their laurels and not push even further,” he said, “because we still have quite a ways to go.”
Even the top-ranked state has a lot of room for improvement, the report authors note.
California scored very well in the Linking Transportation and Land Use sub-category, yet only contributes 16 percent of the state’s overall public transportation funds. Similarly, while the state did very well in the overall Policy category (85 points), it did relatively worse in the Investment category (58 points). Though California has many of the right policies in place, the state could improve the effectiveness of its strong smart growth and transit oriented development policies, further supporting a reduction of transportation-related GHG emissions if the state focused a greater proportion of its transportation funds on cleaner transportation modes and projects such as transit and non-motorized facilities.
Some unexpected results from the rankings: New Jersey cleaned up, finishing third out of all the states, but New York was way down at #21, between Nevada and New Mexico.
Not unexpectedly, more urban states fared better. Arkansas ranked lowest with a total of 2 points.
Federal policy, of course, provides major incentives to keep states from enacting better policies of their own. Federal transportation funding is allocated according to vehicle miles traveled, fuel consumption, and highway lane miles – rewarding states that enact highway-oriented transportation policies with more money to continue those policies.
What kind of federal policies would encourage state DOTs to invest in more efficient and sustainable transportation modes? NRDC and SGA want to see the federal government:
- Set specific emissions reduction targets for the transportation sector.
- Make low-emission transportation plans a criterion for receiving federal aid.
- Update funding formulas to reward reductions in driving, instead of increases.
- Prioritize cleaner transportation modes.
- In the event that carbon is taxed or pollution permits are sold under a future climate policy, dedicate those revenues to fund clean transportation investment.
Former Maryland governor Parris Glendening (who leads Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute) said he went over the results of the survey with current Governor Martin O’Malley. Maryland scored second out of all 50 states, but according to Glendening, O’Malley is already angling to beat California next time around.
“I’m hoping, in all candor, that just about every state looks at this and says, ‘How do we move up the ranking?’” Glendening said. “Not just because it’s fun to move up the ranking. But because it represents real progress in the overall picture of the country.”
Report author Colin Peppard of NRDC agreed. “The policies that support clean transportation are also very effective at promoting things like local economic growth, reducing the public health impacts of transportation like childhood asthma and respiratory disease, and also improving the affordability to households across the country,” he said. But a lot of states aren’t connecting the dots yet. “There’s a lot of potential out there.”