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Viewpoint: Need for Mass. clean transportation policy

When the world convened recently in Bonn, Germany, for the annual United Nations climate-change negotiations, there was a particular focus on the role of U.S. states, cities and businesses in reducing carbon pollution. Massachusetts, along with six other states and the District of Columbia, announced a regional pledge to work together with stakeholders to “create the clean transportation system that the region needs to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”

Cleaning up and modernizing the transportation system will be a major undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be a painful one. Massachusetts has demonstrated the ability to address similar challenges through innovative policies and regional collaboration that reduce emissions while improving the economy. The commonwealth played a key role in launching the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation’s first multi-state program to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

While RGGI has helped Massachusetts make great strides in reducing electric sector pollution, the transportation sector still emits around the same amount of carbon as it did in 1990. Every year, pollution from the transportation sector causes asthma attacks and leads to preventable deaths, taking a massive financial and human toll on Bay State residents. Making matters worse, low-income communities and communities of color face a disproportionate share of the impacts from this pollution.

We can’t transform our transportation system overnight, but we can do more to invest and plan for a better future. From electric vehicle infrastructure to smart growth and improved public transit, we have an array of options to reduce pollution and increase transportation access while benefiting the economy. A RGGI-like program could go a long way to accelerate the adoption of these transportation solutions.

The RGGI cap-and-invest model has helped cut emissions from power plants in the region by 40 percent since 2008, while driving $2.8 billion in regional economic growth and creating nearly 30,000 jobs. Acadia Center analysis shows that RGGI has helped the region outpace the rest of the country in both emissions reductions and economic growth. In Massachusetts alone, these RGGI-driven emissions reductions have resulted in $798 million in avoided health costs.

Recent analysis conducted for the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) shows that regional carbon policy — like a cap-and-invest program — would add billions of dollars to the regional economy, reduce harmful pollution and generate revenue for reinvestment in transportation improvements, accelerating the transition to a cleaner, more efficient, more accessible system. A recent report from Ceres and M.J. Bradley and Associates found that the benefits of investments in electric vehicle infrastructure outweigh the costs by a margin of three to one.

Expanding clean transportation options should be a top priority for our economy. Businesses want 21st century cities with transportation systems to match, and they’ve proven to invest resources and create jobs in areas that have them. To keep Massachusetts’ economy thriving, we must embrace clean transportation. Market-based solutions like the RGGI model offer a promising path forward, and we urge Governor Baker and his peers across the region to act swiftly in establishing such a program.

Mindy Lubber is president and CEO of Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit organization. Daniel L. Sosland is president and executive director of Acadia Center, a nonprofit, research and advocacy organization.