State DOTs tap brakes on emission goals

The road to crafting a national transportation strategy that would curb greenhouse gas emissions has hit another pothole.

State highway departments are worrying that some emissions goals are overly ambitious and threaten to deliver another blow to the economy and state efforts to repair and replace crumbling roads and bridges.

So the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) -- a key player in Capitol Hill transportation debates -- has quietly launched an effort to scale back perceptions of their sector's possible greenhouse gas curbs.

The effort emerged late last month after a wide-ranging group of transportation stakeholders -- including the U.S. Transportation Department, U.S. EPA, Shell Oil Co. and several environmental groups -- released a report that found the United States could cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in half by 2050, assuming it prioritized the emissions reductions above cost and all other factors (Greenwire, July 28).

The report, "Moving Cooler," was released at a Washington, D.C., event attended by transportation decision-makers including House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari, both of whom applauded the work.


But missing from the event was AASHTO. The group, which had served on the report's steering committee, withdrew as the study was being finalized, according to Cambridge Systematics, the transportation consulting firm hired to write the report.

Joanne Potter, a Cambridge senior associate, said AASHTO officials withdrew because they were uncomfortable with how the report would play in the media and on Capitol Hill. "They raised some concerns," she said. "They felt the maximum scenarios would be misconstrued as policy recommendations."

When contacted for comment, AASHTO released a statement from its executive director, John Horsley, which pointed to the potential costs that would come with some of the strategies analyzed by the report.

"AASHTO concluded that virtually all of the strategies in the 'Moving Cooler' report have merit in some form -- but many of them have been formulated beyond what we believe can be reasonably achieved," Horsley said. "The strategies in 'Moving Cooler' are so burdensome and costly to citizens as to bring into question their viability."

Maximum deployment

Transportation accounts for roughly 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the sector has been one of the fastest-growing in the past two decades -- representing nearly half of the nation's total increase in emissions since 1990.

The sweeping energy and climate measure that the House passed in June, H.R. 2454, would require total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to drop 17 percent below 2005 levels and a total of 83 percent by 2050. The Cambridge report found that making the transportation sector more efficient would be critical to meeting those goals.

The study determined that transportation emissions could be reduced 24 percent by 2050 by acting to change travel behavior and land-use patterns. The emissions reduction hit 52 percent by adding controversial road pricing techniques, ranging from pay-as-you-go insurance to charging Americans for every mile driven.

Among the strategies included in the maximum level of emissions reduction that AASHTO took specific issue with were a $200 annual fee for street parking and a tax increase equivalent to $5 per gallon by 2050.

Cambridge and its sponsors stress that the report was not a policy recommendation for Congress, but was research aimed at filling what they saw as an information gap in a transportation-emissions debate that so far has mostly centered on fuel economy and the carbon content of fuels.

"AASHTO seems to think it was some type of advocacy paper, when it purposefully steers clear of that. It's bizarre that there is such a backlash over something that is a rather standard report," said Colin Peppard, who now serves as a policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council but who held a similar position at Environmental Defense Fund during the commissioning of the report. Both EDF and NRDC were co-sponsors of the Cambridge study and were on the steering committee.

Potter said Cambridge's goal was simple: to determine how much emissions-reducing potential each strategy held. The report sought to find out, "If we did this much on this strategy, what would we get out of it?" she said. "We went from very modest to very aggressive; the findings can be used by a pretty broad range of groups."

On the same day of the "Moving Cooler" event, AASHTO released on its Web site its own policy recommendation, titled "Real Transportation Solutions for Green House Gas Emissions." That report did not list specific emissions-reduction targets for the transportation sector; it called for reducing the number of miles driven by U.S. drivers, but put a premium on increased fuel economy and cleaner fuels. A three-level pyramid included in AASHTO's recommendations placed fuel economy and low-carbon fuels as the two bottom, and largest, levels, with cuts in vehicle miles traveled and system optimization sharing the top level.

The Cambridge report, meanwhile, mostly steered clear of analyzing fuels and fuel economy because those have been covered in other studies, Potter said. When the report did address the topic, it found environmental gains from advances in fuel efficiency would be mostly undermined by increased travel and population, making it important to address the efficiency of the transportation sector by investing in public transit, land-use planning and other low-carbon alternatives.

Emission cuts in reauthorization?

When Congress returns next month, House and Senate leaders are expected to renew their debate over when to renew the $286 billion highway and transit authorization that is set to expire at the end of September. Before leaving for the August recess, lawmakers provided the Highway Trust Fund with enough money to keep current spending levels constant through the end of 2009.

The Senate and White House are pushing for an 18-month extension of the current bill. The House, meanwhile, hopes to move forward with a full six-year, $500 billion authorization bill this fall. That bill, drafted by Oberstar and working its way through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, did not contain specific emissions targets. AASHTO remains a close ally of Oberstar in his effort to push through his reauthorization before the end of 2009.

Things are less clear in the Senate, where transportation policy is split among a trio of committees.

Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a Commerce subcommittee chairman, floated legislation earlier this year calling for a 40 percent cut in transportation reductions by 2030 (Greenwire, May 14). Lautenberg, however, has since downplayed the importance of a specific target in the transportation bill.

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