Connecting state and local government leaders
Even though the newly proposed rulemaking from the Transportation Department does not mandate levels for the cuts, it has upset Republicans. The plan includes requirements for metropolitan planning organizations as well.
The Biden administration announced on Thursday it was calling on state transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations to consider the greenhouse gas impacts of vehicle emissions on their highways, a move long sought by environmentalists that sparked a fierce backlash among Republicans.
The Federal Highway Administration proposed the rule that would require states and MPOs to establish targets for cutting carbon dioxide pollution from vehicles, as a step to address the climate crisis. The agency pointed out in its notice of proposed rulemaking that the proposal does not mandate the level of those cuts.
State and regional agencies, it noted, “would have flexibility to set targets that are appropriate for their communities and that work for their respective climate change and other policy priorities, as long as the targets would reduce emissions over time.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a prepared statement that the recently passed federal infrastructure law would also give states the tools to help meet their carbon reduction goals and “protect their communities.”
Deputy Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack characterized the proposed rule as a way of building on the work of two dozen states that already have set goals for cutting their greenhouse gas pollution. “This proposed rule would bring this locally proven approach to scale nationwide,” she said.
The Biden administration’s proposal is similar to a measure that the Obama administration put out during its final days in power. Both relied on a 2012 law that gives the federal transportation department the authority to require performance data from states on a number of issues, including safety and road conditions. One of the goals for the federal aid highway program listed in that law, known as MAP-21, is “environmental sustainability.”
The Trump administration quickly rescinded the Obama-era rules on greenhouse gas disclosures before states were required to comply with them.
Joung Lee, the deputy director and chief policy officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said state transportation departments generally support the idea of using state-led initiatives to deal with greenhouse gas pollution.
But AASHTO members are still examining the proposal to see whether the Biden administration’s approach would judge states on factors that they “directly influence,” he said.
States own some of the busiest roads in the country, and they want to make sure that the performance measures they use can help make decisions about how to build, maintain and upgrade those roads, Lee said. They have to consider how much funding is available, what state laws and regulations apply, and other policy goals when deciding how to upgrade their roads, he said.
“We’re trying to figure out how does [the new greenhouse gas rule] fit the overall asset management plans that every state has for the National Highway System?” Lee said.
The FHWA proposal would be based on tailpipe emissions from vehicles traveling on the national highway system, a network of the busiest 220,000 miles of roads in a country with more than 4 million miles of public roads.
“A lot of that [tailpipe emissions] has to do with local-level land use decisions that ultimately create travel demand wherever you are,” he said.
Praise for the Initiative
But a group of city transportation officials praised the initiative.
“We can’t change what we don’t measure,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, in a statement. “With the Biden administration’s common-sense rule, cities and states will no longer be flying blind and will know which transportation projects are the best use of taxpayer dollars.”
Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, told Route Fifty the proposal was “essential for sunlight and accountability.”
The new infrastructure law, she noted, included several provisions designed to mitigate the threat of climate change. “Yet there’s no information to the taxpayer about how their hard-earned money is going to be spent in terms of its impact on the climate,” Osborne said.
Osborne’s group urged the Transportation Department to “be bold” and consider states’ progress toward their climate goals when awarding discretionary grants.
On the other hand, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who helped shape the bipartisan infrastructure law, said the Biden administration was acting “without any authority from Congress.”
“Unfortunately, this action follows a common theme by both [the U.S. Department of Transportation] and the administration, which is implementing partisan policy priorities they wish had been included in the bipartisan bill that the president signed into law,” she said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, claimed Biden’s highway agency was “veering off course once again,” referring to a previous controversy about a memo Pollack issued in December outlining her agency’s preferences in how the federal infrastructure dollars would be spent.
“This proposed rule needs to be fully rescinded. It is dumb policy, and the Biden administration should take a hint from the recent West Virginia v. EPA decision, which reminded agencies to stay within the confines Congress gave them,” Cramer said in a statement.
Osborne, the Transportation for America director and a former high-level official in President Obama’s Transportation Department, said the current proposal is similar to other requirements the federal government has for states on improving traffic safety. While states have to set goals, there is no consequence if they don’t meet them.
“It’s based on something that predates the infrastructure bill by 10 years,” Osborne said. “Back in MAP-21, the deal that was made was that Congress would give states even more latitude over how they spend federal dollars in exchange for more sunlight and accountability in their results.”
Mark Drajem, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the proposal would fit with existing reporting rules.
“DOT already requires states and agencies to track other air pollution, road and bridge conditions, and safety; this rule would be just the next piece of that puzzle,” he said in a statement.
“While proposed regulations from DOT may sound super wonky, this proposed rule would be an important step in making sure the $600 billion in investments under the new, bipartisan infrastructure law leads to lower emissions and a cleaner future,” Drajem argued.
“There’s ample evidence from across the private and public sector that just establishing tracking measures in a certain area leads to improvements in performance. In addition, reporting on how transportation investments cause emissions to increase or decrease is a valuable tool so taxpayers and citizens can advocate for federal investments to be done right,” he wrote.
This story has been corrected to indicate the proposed rule was released on Thursday (July 7), not Wednesday.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.