Transportation Pollution is on the Rise in Massachusetts  

August 28, 2018 | 1:37 pm
Photo: Billy Hathorn/Flickr
Daniel Gatti
Former contributor

Pollution from cars and trucks is  on the rise in Massachusetts, undermining the Commonwealth’s ability to achieve the mandates of the Global Warming Solutions Act, according to preliminary numbers released by the Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday.

DEP’s updated emissions inventory showed a significant jump in emissions from transportation, from 29.7 MMT in 2015 to 31.7 MMT in 2016, an increase of over 6 percent. Transportation pollution is higher today than it has been at any point since 2008. It is the only sector where emissions are higher today than they were in 1990. Even as the state makes significant progress in other areas, the challenge of transportation pollution threatens to undermine our ability to achieve our legally mandated climate limits.

The growth in transportation pollution is occurring even though our cars and trucks are getting cleaner and more efficient every year, thanks to national vehicle emission standards in place since 2009.

Why are transportation emissions increasing?

Transportation emissions are growing because the economy of Massachusetts and the Boston metro area is booming: there are over 400,000 more jobs in Massachusetts today than 10 years ago. That’s a good thing for a state, but it is also putting unprecedented pressure on our transportation system. More jobs mean more commuters, travelling more miles, consuming more gasoline, and producing more pollution.

In addition to the spike in emissions, Boston commuters are spending more time than ever before stuck in traffic. The average Boston driver spent 60 hours (more than two days!) in traffic in 2017, making Boston the seventh-most congested in the city in the country.

One thing that is not growing right now in Massachusetts: use of public transportation. MBTA Bus and light rail public transportation are down 6.5 percent and 3.5 percent respectively over the past three years. Insufficient funding, unreliable service and increasing competition from ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft are all playing a role reducing the use of public transit. Housing near public transportation centers is also becoming prohibitively expensive for many Massachusetts residents.

Another important factor: with gas prices relatively low and greater disposable income, consumers are buying bigger cars. Sales of SUVs and light trucks have grown to over 65 percent of the national U.S. vehicle market in 2017 – though the largest growth has been in smaller car-like SUVs. While national emission standards are improving the efficiency of all vehicles, including SUVs and pickup trucks, this trend towards larger vehicles is nevertheless undermining some of our expected gains in fuel efficiency.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is now proposing to freeze federal vehicle standards – and to strip Massachusetts, California and other states of our right to set aggressive emission standards. If this federal attack is successful, it would be a critical blow to Massachusetts’ climate strategy. The vast majority of the projected emission reductions from transportation in the state’s recent Clean Energy and Climate Plan come from these standards.

What can we do?

The good news is that we have the tools to achieve dramatic reductions in transportation emissions regardless of what happens in Washington, DC.

Moreover, Massachusetts now has numerous studies and Commissions working on the problem of transportation emissions. In addition to the Future of Transportation Commission, the Comprehensive Energy Plan and the Clean Energy and Climate Plan, the state also announced on Thursday a new look at potential deep decarbonization studies for 2050, which will look at how we achieve dramatic reductions in emissions throughout our economy.

Here are three things the Commonwealth can do to get a handle on pollution from transportation:

Create a market-based limit on transportation emissions. One option would be to work with Northeast states to create a cap and invest program covering transportation fuels. The “cap” sets an overall limit on tailpipe pollution. This limit is enforced through a requirement that polluters purchase allowances based on the carbon associated with burning that fuel. The state only allows allowances up to the cap. As the cap gradually lowers, emissions reductions are guaranteed, while market forces raise the cost of allowances, generating proceeds. The state can then invest those proceeds in clean transportation solutions, like electric cars, trucks, and buses, better public transportation, and walking and biking options.

We’ve seen a similar program work before. In 2004, Massachusetts joined with the other states of the Northeast to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (also known as “RGGI”) for the electric sector. Today, RGGI stands as a triumph of smart climate policy. Thanks to RGGI, in addition to other complimentary policies, the Northeast is on track to cut pollution from power plants by 65% by 2030. Funding from RGGI is used to support some of Massachusetts’ most innovative and important climate policies, including the MassSave program and the Green Communities Act. Overall, independent analysis shows that RGGI has created 44,000 jobs in the region while saving consumers over $773 million in reduced energy costs.

Promote responsible growth of ride hailing services. Ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are already changing the way people are getting around in our cities, and with autonomous vehicles on the horizon, these services will continue to shape our mobility choices in the years to come. However, these services can only operate effectively if they are working hand in hand with a strong public transportation system. Massachusetts should consider fees, regulations and incentives for these companies. Proceeds could be used to support public transit while requirements and incentives could encourage electrification of ride hailing fleets, and encourage pooling to provide more rides with less congestion.

Increase incentives for vehicle electrification. Electric vehicles are a critical technology for the future of the Commonwealth, but right now they are too expensive for many low or moderate-income residents. As the state considers future program models, there should be increased funds available for rebates targeted toward low and moderate-income residents so that these vehicles are truly affordable for everyone.  In addition, the state should consider additional rebates to encourage people to trade in old and dirty pickup trucks and SUVs for cleaner and more efficient models.

One thing that we cannot do is continue to ignore the challenges facing transportation and climate in our Commonwealth. Massachusetts climate law requires reductions from all sources of pollution in the state, and we will not meet the requirements of that law without addressing transportation. Beyond emissions, we need to address the interconnected challenges of increasing congestion, the increasing cost of housing, and the declining state of our public transportation services or these problems will grow more difficult and more frustrating for Massachusetts residents.