A Transportation and Climate Action Strategy for Rhode Island and the Northeast


As the challenge of climate warming dogs us, the transportation sector is frequently overlooked as a key contributing sector. The recent announcement that nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic governors — Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — and the mayor of Washington, D.C., are moving forward with a regional clean transportation initiative is a welcome sign.

The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) is a regional collaboration of Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia to design a new regional low-carbon transportation policy that would cap and reduce carbon emissions from the combustion of transportation fuels, and invest proceeds from the program into low-carbon and more-resilient transportation infrastructure.

The goals of TCI’s regional proposal include reducing climate-changing pollution, creating economic opportunity, and improving transportation equity for currently underserved and overburdened populations. It also sets a goal of completing the policy design process within one year, after which each jurisdiction will decide whether to adopt and implement the policy.

The TCI announcement is a wake-up call for Rhode Island’s Resilient Rhody strategy to put a more robust emphasis on the use of public transit to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG) and meet GHG emissions target reductions.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts sea-level rise in Rhode Island upwards of 9 feet by 2100. Rising seas increase the risk of storm surge, which leads to increased coastal damage. The inland areas of the state are also more vulnerable, as instances of intense precipitation are on the rise; since 1958, New England has recorded a 71 percent increase in high-intensity rainfall incidents. It’s also quite clear that flooding, rising seas, and storm surge, due to climate change, threaten to erode much of our transportation infrastructure as well.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2007 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had to consider climate impacts when devising its automobile fuel-efficiency standards. During the Obama administration, the “social cost of carbon” was pegged by the Environmental Protection Agency at $45 a ton.

Under this approach, an average car emits a ton of GHG every two months, so to offset GHG an annual expense would be added to a cars price: roughly $250 a year for the life of the car. Needless to say, the Trump administration has less interest in this approach. But the 2007 court decision lends impetus to the notion that we need to be relentless in taking climate impacts in devising any broad public health and economic development policies and practices.

A way forward is to take climate impacts in our decisions and developments related to our transportation system. Such a model would also embrace a new low-carbon transportation policy that would cap and reduce carbon emissions from the combustion of transportation fuels, and resist the development and design of built environments that only serve to enable high-carbon transportation. Such a model would require some form of carbon pricing.

One model is California’s utilization of a GHG pricing assessment. In 2015, 437 companies calculated an internal price on carbon. For example, since 2012 Microsoft business unit managers have included the price of carbon emissions in their unit when reporting profits or losses each quarter. Microsoft business units are then charged an internal tax based on each unit’s energy usage. The money is transferred into a common fund that invests in environmental sustainability projects within the company.

Microsoft’s environmental sustainability team inventories the amount of energy that each business unit will consume in a quarter. This includes office space, data centers, or business air travel. Those kilowatt-hours and gallons of fuel are then converted into metric tons of carbon. The environmental sustainability team then proposes green-energy production and more energy-efficient buildings, and commitments to long-term sustainable power infrastructure to offset emissions.

Microsoft charged its business units about $20 million for their emissions in 2015. The company reduced its emissions by the equivalent of 7.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and saved more than $10 million through reduced energy consumption in three years. Investors also appear to be keenly interested in linking GHG emissions to investment choices. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, for example, which manages more than $300 billion, has publicly announced support for carbon-pricing efforts in its investment decisions.

Rhode Island could calculate and level charges on transportation-related GHG emissions that would include features of the built environment that increase such emissions — parking garages, parking lots, and development outside transit-rich and walkable sectors — to be deposited into a “carbon mitigation bank.” This bank could then fund targeted projects that reduce transportation-related GHG emissions, such as expanding the scope and frequency for mass transit and built-environment features that enhance walkability and bicycling.

In order to mitigate GHG emissions, states and municipalities throughout the country have made reducing personal vehicle miles traveled a policy priority. Minneapolis, for example, has proposed an 80 percent reduction in transport emissions by 2050, by reducing driving miles by 40 percent. The city also has proposed reducing the number of parking spaces required, increasing the walkability of neighborhoods by encouraging more dense housing, and banning new gas stations within city limits.

Denver has proposed a $1.2 billion investment in sidewalks and public transit. At the state level, the California Air Resources Board has proposed: quadrupling the number of trips made by walking; limiting urban growth boundaries; instituting congestion pricing and parking pricing; and prioritizing transit, walking, and biking projects for state infrastructure funding.

Supporting the role of public transportation in reducing Rhode Island’s GHG-emission profile of the transportation sector could also be promoted based on planks developed over the past several years by local mass transit advocates.

Encourage municipal and local officials to adopt transit-oriented development in all new projects in the design phase and imbed such requirements in the contractual and bid process. Transit-oriented development is a climate-mitigation approach that prescribes a mixture of housing, food market, office, retail, commercial, and cultural amenities to reinforce dense walkable and bikeable neighborhoods within close proximity to public transportation.

Encourage a public transit promotion plan as part of any publicly funded developmental proposal in which access to public transit was emphasized and indeed central to the design. In contrast, the Providence Place mall development proposal was a disaster, in that pedestrian and public transit access was left out completely.

Dedicate a portion of registration fees and vehicle sales taxes to public transportation, biking, and enhanced walking infrastructures — known as complete streets.

Establish a congestion-pricing plan in central metro areas to reduce gridlock, GHG emissions, and air pollutants and to raise money for various transit, biking, and enhanced pedestrian infrastructures.

Encourage private firms and municipal and state departments that offer free parking for employees and visitors to offer public transit incentives, as is recommended in Rhode Island’s State Guide Plan.

Encourage large institutions, especially those that are tax exempt, and large businesses to adopt a bus route as a community service by funding some operational costs, distributing and posting schedules, and notifying employees.

Establish GHG emission fees and mileage taxes on gig economy transport — i.e., Uber and Lyft — and regulate these services as taxi service is regulated.

James Celenza is the director of the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.