Over the past decade, the Northeast region of the United States has helped lead the country—and the world—in supporting and developing clean, renewable sources of electricity. Taken together, the policies of Northeast states, from Maine to Maryland, have generated billions of dollars in investment for solar, wind, and efficiency. One driving force behind this investment is a regional initiative that caps emissions from the electricity sector, charges power plants for the emissions they generate, and invests the funds generated by those fees into efficiency and clean energy programs. This initiative has helped fundamentally change the region’s electricity sector: we have achieved unprecedented penetration of renewables, nearly eliminated the use of coal, and reduced overall electricity use at a time of economic expansion.
The next big step for the states of the Northeast is to bring that same sense of commitment, ingenuity and purpose towards clean transportation.
Transportation is the largest source of pollution in the Northeast region, comprising more than 40 percent of total regional global warming emissions. In addition to the health impacts associated with rising temperatures, soot and ground-level ozone from the region’s cars and trucks are responsible for more than 50,000 asthma attacks, 1,000 deaths, and other pollution-related illnesses that incur approximately $27 billion in total health costs every year. The health impacts of transportation affect all of us, but especially vulnerable are children, the elderly, and people in low-income communities (who often live in or near freight corridors).
Our transportation system pollutes because it is dirty, wasteful and inefficient. It’s also expensive. 92 percent of all transportation is powered by oil. Every year Northeast drivers send billions of dollars out of state to purchase fuel, enriching oil companies at the expense of our economy. Congestion, a growing problem in every Northeast metro area, is a waste of our time and a source of endless aggravation for Northeast drivers. 4 of the 5 states with the longest commute times are located in the Northeast. At the same time, inadequate access to affordable transportation remains a major barrier to opportunity, particularly for poor and marginalized communities, rural residents, the disabled and the elderly.
We can create a better transportation system
The good news is that we have the tools and the technologies to build a better, cleaner transportation system in the Northeast. Exciting technologies such as electric vehicles offer the promise of cars and trucks and buses that can operate without tailpipe emissions and that can be powered by clean energy. Thanks to our relatively clean grid, in the Northeast EVs can get the emissions equivalent of a 100+ mpg vehicle.
New transportation modes such as ride-sharing and automated vehicles, if given the proper incentives, have the potential to challenge the dominance of personally owned, single-occupancy vehicles and open up new possibilities for greater system efficiency. Use of public transportation in the six largest transit systems in the Northeast has increased over 8% since 2008. And a younger generation is coming of age that shows ever greater interest in transit, cycling, and urban living.
Together, these present-day technologies and trends point towards a possible future still on the horizon. A transportation system that does more but costs less and pollutes less. Where a network of shared, electric vehicles, working in concert with a first-class public transportation system, gets everybody where they need to go without burning a gallon of gasoline or getting stuck for an hour in traffic.
A transportation system that doesn’t contribute to air pollution, doesn’t contribute to climate change, and doesn’t concern itself with the price of oil.
We need new policies to make this happen
This future won’t happen on its own. We need policies to get us there. Just as there was no one, silver-bullet policy that is responsible for the progress that we have made reducing emissions from electricity, reducing pollution in transportation will require a coordinated set of policies and regulations. It will require cooperation between local, state, regional and federal governments, and between government and the private sector. Ultimately, it will require policy leaders to identify new sources of funding for clean transportation priorities.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recommends that Northeast decisionmakers do the following to get the region on the path toward a cleaner transportation system:
- Create a regional limit on transportation emissions. The Northeast’s success in reducing electricity-related emissions lies in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); under RGGI, which came into force in 2009, Northeast states established an overall limit on emissions from electricity consumed in these states. The RGGI process brought together key stakeholders in the business community and guided local, state, and regional policymakers’ decisions about clean energy and efficiency investments. Establishing a similar program for the region’s transportation sector would ensure that communities and governments take a comprehensive, coordinated approach to identifying and investing in clean transit solutions.
- Enforce this limit through regulations that hold oil companies accountable for their emissions. Under RGGI, the emissions cap is enforced by requiring power plants to purchase allowances for every ton of pollution they emit under the cap. By limiting the number of allowances available, the program guarantees overall emission reductions. Proceeds from allowance sales is used to support a range of clean energy and efficiency initiatives that save consumers money and reduce pollution. This “cap-and-invest” strategy has successfully reduced the region’s electricity emissions while cutting costs for consumers.For the transportation sector, a cap-and-invest program could require polluters (in this case, oil companies serving the Northeast) to purchase allowances under a designated cap, and communities could use the funds generated from allowance sales for clean transportation programs. This strategy has been used successfully to reduce transportation-related emissions in California, and in Ontario and Quebec, Canada.
- Invest in clean transportation solutions for Northeast residents. There are many valuable projects and programs in the Northeast region that could help reduce consumer costs and expand clean mobility choices. For example, states could offer subsidies for lower-income residents who want to purchase an electric vehicle; several states outside the region offer such a program, including California, which offers low-income consumers up to $13,500 in rebates when they trade in a vehicle. States could also invest in infrastructure to make electric vehicle charging more convenient for drivers. Increasing our investments in affordable housing and transit can ensure that people who want to live in communities with multiple transportation choices, or who want to live car-free, can do so. And replacing older and less-efficient buses and trucks in with electric models could significantly improve air quality in urban environments.
- Engage communities and stakeholders in a broad conversation about clean transportation. We need to be thinking about how to provide clean transportation options to all communities in the region, from our big metro areas, to our medium-sized post-industrial “Gateway Cities,” to suburban and rural areas. It is especially important for states to think carefully about how a new investment in clean transportation solutions can benefit communities that are currently poorly served by our existing transportation system, including many communities of color, rural communities, the disabled, and the elderly. Engaging community groups early in the process can help policymakers understand the real transportation needs of Northeast residents, and shape resulting policies and programs for maximum benefit.
The Northeast has long been a leader in addressing pollution from fossil fuels, and its multistate initiative to reduce electricity sector emissions has set an example for other regions to follow. With the federal government abdicating responsibility for our environment and our climate, state and regional leadership is more important than ever. Working together, we can create a clean transportation system that works for all our residents, and the result will be a cleaner environment, a stronger economy, less spending on fuel, and a safer climate.