Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
Climate Change

New Federal Report Finds Most U.S. Communities Are Clueless About Their Transport Emissions

The Biden Administration set a goal to get America to net zero by 2050. But when it comes to U.S. transportation, most American communities have no idea where they're even starting from.

Last summer, the Federal Highway Administration proposed a new requirement that would compel state DOTs and municipal planning organizations (MPOs) to track greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and set targets to reduce them.

That sounds like a reasonable ask, seeing that the United Nations started its first round of talks to combat climate change in 1992. But last week, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showed that most states and municipalities barely even know where to start.

The Obama Administration first asked states and MPOs to furnish GHG figures in 2016, just a month before Donald Trump — who would later have the measure repealed — became the presumptive Republican nominee for president. The Biden Administration proposed reinstating the directive in October of last year, prompting the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to commission the GAO report to study whether states were ready to comply.

The news wasn’t great. Of the 39 of the 50 state DOTs that responded to the GAO’s questionnaire, only 41 percent of agencies reported having any GHG emissions tracking program in place — and those agencies relied on wildly different methodologies to estimate their carbon impacts. And even if the proposed tracking requirement doesn’t yet carry the force of law, some advocates argue that states have a moral obligation to do better. 

“State and local transportation agencies have a responsibility to model their greenhouse gas emissions and to put together plans that will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid century,” said Kevin DeGood, who oversees infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress. “Those greenhouse gas emissions are clearly within their purview in the sense that their infrastructure and their operational choices affect how much surface transportation emits.” 

In many communities, those choices have been disastrous for the climate. Transportation currently accounts for 29 percent of all GHG emissions in the US, the largest share of any sector and a number some advocates fear will rise following 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which provided a 50 percent boost for road spending by reauthorizing the Highway Trust Fund’s de-facto carte blanche approach. Some of the damage may be offset by the billions of federal dollars for carbon-cutting electric vehicle, multimodal infrastructure, and transit programs, but some advocates say those efforts could be easily overwhelmed by all the asphalt coming down the pike — especially if states aren’t watching their emissions numbers.

So why are so many DOTs and MPOs in the dark? The authors of the GAO report pointed out that the IIJA doesn’t provide much funding for GHG modeling at the local level, and that even the climate-wonkiest MPOs have trouble rolling out new modeling programs.  Many DOTs and MPOs also lack in-house emissions tracking expertise, struggle to quantify the returns on investments like pedestrianization projects and bike lanes over time, or simply struggle to incentivize people to rethink their car-centric commutes. 

DeGood, though, says none of that should be an excuse for inaction.

“I understand that it's difficult to do, but nobody is claiming that addressing climate change is easy,” he added. “This is why Al Gore’s documentary was called ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.”

In a perfect world, DeGood said that the federal government would require state DOTs and MPOs to model emissions and implement plans to achieve their reduction goals — and give them the tools to pursue decarbonization strategies that work for them. And in many places, those strategies must involve getting people out of cars. 

“What you would do is you would provide those states and regions [with the necessary resources,]” DeGood theorized. “It's a mandate, but it's not a dictate, in the sense that you're not telling them how to get to the target. We would expect that California and Idaho are going to have different pathways to net-zero. One of those is going to be probably more heavily focused on EVs and electrification [and] the other one might have a more robust transit [and] walkability component to it. The beauty of the mandate is [giving] states the flexibility for them to decide how they get to net-zero.”

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Friday’s Headlines Depend on How You Phrase It

How to reduce emissions through taxes is pretty clear, but to sell it to the public, you can't make lower-income people pay.

May 24, 2024

Register Your Bike. It’s Easy, It’s Free, and It Helps Everyone

Bike Index, a free national bike registry, just launched an iOS app to make it even easier.

May 23, 2024

No Driver, Mo’ Problems: Advocates Demand AV Regulations

And federal probes into self-driving vehicles after crashes and fires are not making a great case for the future of autonomous vehicles.

Thursday’s Headlines Need a Hero

Who will save transit now that federal COVID funds are running out? The New York Times investigates.

May 23, 2024
See all posts