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Talking Headways

Talking Headways Podcast: Making DOTs Measure Emissions

Beth Osbourne joins the podcast to chat about the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measure Rule that will make State DOTs and MPOs measure emissions on the federal highway system.

2:48 PM EST on January 18, 2024

This week we’re joined by Beth Osborne, Vice President for Transportation and Thriving Communities at Smart Growth America.  We chat about the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measure Rule that will make State DOTs and MPOs measure emissions on the federal highway system.

We also talk about how Beth thinks we have things lining up for positive change, politics of implementing rules, and how the NTSB treats air travel and surface transportation so differently.

You can find a partial, edited portion of our conversation under the audio player below. Click here for an unedited, AI-generated transcription of our full conversation.

Jeff Wood: Why did it take so long the first time and then again [to release the emissions measurement rule]? I saw when it was basically January 2016, which the new administration was coming in right away. So that was kind of a late bloom on their part. And then three years after, you know, the Biden administration has come in, we’re starting this all over again right before another election. Why is it taking ‘em so long each time till like they put it at the end of the road?

Beth Osborne: Well, the first time around, and this might be more geeky detail than most people want, but —

Jeff Wood: That’s why we’re here.

Beth Osborne: Fair. The way the law was written was very simple, but implementing a process this is much harder than it looks. I was in the Obama administration when we started implementing the MAP 21 performance management language. And the whole idea then was that the law had consolidated a lot of programs and given state DOTs substantially more flexibility on how they spend the dollars. But in return they would have to be more accountable for that expenditure. In reality, the accountability was pretty weak. It was really just they had to be honest about what their goals were and how well they did in fulfilling the goals that they declared to the taxpayer.

What we decided to do was start with the safety measures that are in the law because they were something we had a long track record of measuring and we thought they’d be the easiest to put out. And in doing so, we would also start to structure the process — how often would you report, how would you establish baselines, who had to report, did MPOs have to set separate targets, all those sorts of nitty gritty issues that create the framework. The second rule was all of the system measures like state of repair measures — something that was, you know, we had a good track record in measuring. It wasn’t super unfamiliar.

We then took further steps in creating the structure. And then the third rule was all the other things, the performance of the NHS and the congestion measures and the congestion mitigation air quality measure. So that third measure, which included all of the reliability measures on the highways, the congestion measure and the air quality measure came third and the greenhouse gas measure was in there. And that was the only piece repealed. And the reason it was repealed so quickly is, it was a new rule and the Trump administration doesn’t sit around and lollygag. It’s a priority they did it. Yeah. In terms of the Biden administration, I think my, this is my guess not being on the inside, there was a lot of pushback from the career team.

There was concern from counsel that re-upping this rule would be hard to do without a long record of why. Counsel’s job is to coach everyone to do things in a way that won’t attract lawsuits, which is stupid. Everything attracts lawsuits. Free yourself from the responsibility ’cause it doesn’t matter what you’re gonna do, you’re gonna get sued. That’s not how council thinks. And political leadership, and I don’t mean within DOT, I mean within the White House did not just make a decision and push it through. So my best guess is the true holdup was the White House and the Office of Management and Budget that just frankly does not make climate a priority within transportation.

Jeff Wood: And that’s crazy ’cause it’s so much of a percentage, like what is it, 29 percent of US emissions?

Beth Osborne: And going up in a lot of places, but they’re gonna electrify it and tech’s gonna save us.

Jeff Wood: We could talk about that. We could talk. Yeah, always does. And there’s no path dependence or anything. Not

Beth Osborne: At all.

Jeff Wood: Well, so that’s an interesting point about the suing because 21 states are now suing because the rule, obviously council didn’t matter whether they made it safe or not. And so they’re, they’re saying they don’t even wanna measure emissions and basically it’ll be

Beth Osborne: Too hard. They’re multi-billion dollar agencies. But it would be hard to measure CO2 ugh. Unbelievable whining

Jeff Wood: Even though there’s no penalties for missing targets. Nope. And there’s no requirements to, you know, have them be accurate even so, you know, all they have to do is measure and they just don’t even want to do that.

Beth Osborne: Yep. That is correct. And they say it will be some huge impetus. But I’m reminded of, I don’t know if you’ve seen all the articles that came out recently about immune system response. It said that if our immune systems don’t have things to fight, they’ll turn on us. They’ll turn on the system because an immune system just has to stay active. So it’s gonna find something to fight. I think the same can be said of some of the Republican leadership out there. If USDOT doesn’t give them stuff to fight, they will fight whatever’s left. So if say an administration did nothing in the first couple years except for put out an unenforceable memo that maybe, you know, federal highways, state leadership should encourage states to think about repairing infrastructure before building new infrastructure, they’ll fight that.

Because it’s the only thing that was given to them to fight in this realm. And I think it the same is to be said here. This is, I mean what else have we left them with to fight? So they’ll pick this one instead and it encourages the administration to do nothing in transportation. It was a very interesting filing. It said things like we can’t possibly measure this. We have no idea how to measure CO2, but we already know that we’re going to be emitting more because it’s impossible not to. So we don’t know how, but we clearly do ’cause we know what’s gonna happen. And the notion that they get so much money in a trust fund without having to fight for it, almost nobody has that luxury of lifestyle as DOTs do.

And they can’t tell me how much they’re going to emit. I would argue that maybe they shouldn’t get the money if they can’t do this base level work. Measuring emissions from transportation is not hard. We’re doing it with criteria pollutants. It doesn’t take any more special work to measure CO2. And so, you know, either they’re lying or they’re incompetent or both.

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