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States to Target Lower Transportation Emissions Under Proposed Rule

Half a decade after it first proposed the rule, the federal government could soon require states to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. But questions remain about its impact.

A traffic jam during rush hour on a multi-lane freeway.
A recently proposed federal rule would require states and metropolitan planning organizations to set targets for reducing tailpipe carbon emissions on portions of the national highway system that are within their boundaries, and to publicly monitor progress toward those goals.

Drafted during the Obama administration, the rule was meant to help track the emissions that contribute to climate change, and to inform transportation planning decisions that could help reduce them. It was published two days before President Trump took office, and his administration later rescinded the rule before it took effect. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published the proposed measure in the Federal Register in July.

In seeking to reinstate the rule, the Biden administration is urging states to set targets that align with national carbon-reduction goals. The administration has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050. Coupled with billions of dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for carbon reduction and electric vehicle infrastructure — and more modest sums for multimodal transit planning — the administration hopes the rule will help states and metropolitan areas make fewer climate-damaging transportation decisions.

In a press release announcing the rule, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called it “an important step forward in tackling transportation’s share of the climate challenge.” But the five-year delay in implementation of the rule, and the absence of enforcement measures for states that don’t meet their targets, leave its overall potential impact to be determined.

Biggest Emitter of Carbon

Transportation in the U.S. emits more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than any other economic sector — about 27 percent of the country’s total carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The majority of those emissions are produced by passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks.

Starting with the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, automobiles have for decades become incrementally more fuel efficient and cleaner in terms of the air polluting chemicals they produce. But burning gasoline to power a vehicle still produces carbon dioxide, the primary climate-warming gas.

The Clean Air Act and other fuel efficiency regulations have done little to reduce the overall amount of driving that occurs on U.S. roads. On the contrary, average vehicle miles traveled per person have trended largely upward since the early 1980s, with a decade-long dip between 2004 and 2014, according to the Eno Center for Transportation.

The new rule proposed by FHWA would create more detailed, location-specific data about transportation emissions. And, the agency hopes, it would help lower those emissions over time. The rules are deliberately flexible, requiring states and metros to set targets, but not prescribing strategies they should adopt to meet them. That’s because there is “no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling climate change,” a spokesperson from the FHWA said in an email.
A line graph showing the change in vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. between 1981 and 2017.
Fuel efficiency regulations have done little to reduce the overall amount of driving that occurs on U.S. roads. Average vehicle miles traveled per person have trended largely upward since the early 1980s, with a decade-long dip between 2004 and 2014.
(Eno Center for Transportation)
“Positioning state governments and metropolitan planning organizations to play their part in reducing greenhouse emissions starts with respecting their autonomy and giving them the flexibility to set declining annual targets that reflect their unique circumstances,” the spokesperson said.

State and Local Progress

For states and metros, the primary benefit of setting targets is establishing a baseline of emissions that progress can be tracked against, says Stephanie Gagnon, an associate policy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, which monitors state climate policies. Strategies for achieving those reductions fall into two categories: Eliminating emissions from vehicles and reducing vehicle miles traveled, she says.

Some states are well ahead of the curve. California, for example, has been more aggressive than other states in setting targets for carbon reductions, and specifically in making policies that reduce transportation emissions. The state has set a deadline of 2035 for phasing out new fuel-combustion vehicles and switching to electric cars, a goal that carries difficult infrastructural and cost challenges. Just as challenging, if not more: Redesigning the built environment to allow greater mobility with less reliance on cars.

“Fundamentally, people should not be tied to a deadly, depreciating asset, that also poisons their neighbors, just to get around town,” says Craig Segall, the deputy executive officer for mobile sources and incentives at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which oversees the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The state is “sprinting away” from gas-powered driving, Segall says, and CARB administers a host of incentive programs for adopting cleaner vehicles. Recent increases in driving overall have offset some of the advances in electric vehicle tech, he says. But other initiatives, like hard-fought, controversial efforts to build denser housing in single-family areas and invest in transit-oriented development, could reduce the need for personal car trips.

“There’s so much low hanging fruit here because we’ve made so many car-dependent choices for so long,” Segall says.

With much of the decision-making power about where people live and work in the hands of local governments, though, states and metro planning organizations can’t unilaterally force more climate-friendly changes to the design of urban regions. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has had greenhouse gas emissions targets in place for years, says Erin Aleman, the group’s executive director.

But, like the targets that would be required under the proposed FHWA rule, they’re nonbinding. Metropolitan planning organizations, like Chicago’s, have few options to force local leaders to make different decisions about development, housing and transit infrastructure. “We’re limited by our power of persuasion to get folks to think about implementing and advancing those targets,” Aleman says.

Limited Impact Without Enforcement

The FHWA hopes that the rule will inform better decisions about transportation investments, in part because it will “transparently characterize the impact of these decisions on GHG emissions and increase public awareness of GHG emissions trends,” a spokesperson said. Advocates say the rule is welcome, but won’t have a real impact on overall emissions without changes to the way mass transit and highway projects are funded.

Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, says it was discouraging when the Trump administration rescinded the rule before it took effect, because it was “merely a sunlight and accountability” measure that would have helped track how transportation planning affects climate emissions. States won’t have a hard time complying with the proposed rule, which has been opposed by Republicans in Congress, because all it requires is that they set a target for reduced emissions — not that they implement a plan for making reductions or suffer a consequence for not achieving them.

The Department of Transportation could do more than it has to bring climate considerations into transportation planning and funding, Osborne says. For example, when agencies are performing environmental assessments of transportation projects, DOT could require them to include an analysis of induced demand — the process by which building new road capacity invites new vehicle travel, and “a phenomenon that we’ve understood for over a century,” she says.

Even though the science of climate change is increasingly uncontroversial, strategies to combat it remain politically divisive, says Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. The Biden administration wants to address the impacts of the country’s transportation system on the climate and environment, but “the rule itself is not up to meeting the urgency of the moment,” he says. Without enforcement measures, there’s no evidence that it will cause states and MPOs that haven’t already made substantial progress on reducing emissions to do so.

“I think it is a step forward,” Freemark says. “But it is an inadequate step forward in achieving the goal of reduced carbon emissions.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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