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House bill would force states to cut transportation emissions, with ‘consequences’ for those that don’t

A provision in the budget bill would reward transportation agencies for bringing down emissions from driving, while penalizing others

On-ramps to Highway 405 and Interstate 5 in Portland, Ore. (Mason Trinca/for The Washington Post)

A measure in the House’s $2 trillion economic initiative would require states to cut greenhouse gas emissions, promising rewards for transportation departments that post reductions and “consequences” for those that don’t.

To its supporters, the proposal — set forth in a few dozen lines in the mammoth budget bill — is an overdue acknowledgment that decisions about transportation infrastructure shape how much carbon people emit as they get around. But its opponents say it is unfair to single out transportation departments, while setting standards that could be unattainable in rural areas.

Much of the attention on cutting emissions from the transportation sector — the nation’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases — has focused on the adoption of electric vehicles by investing in charging infrastructure and subsidizing battery-powered cars. The new measure goes beyond provisions in the infrastructure law for crafting emissions plans, siding with environmental advocates who argue the nation can’t battle a changing climate without also changing how Americans move around.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the proposal is designed to motivate states to act, resurrecting an idea he unsuccessfully advanced as part of debate over the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law.

“We’re going to give them very large incentives to actually make those meaningful targets and deliver on those targets,” DeFazio said.

According to the proposal, states that cut emissions could tap a $1 billion pot of money and potentially receive other bonus funding from the federal government. The bill doesn’t spell out potential consequences for not reducing emissions, leaving the decision to federal transportation officials. Experts said they could include barriers to accessing highly prized grant funds.

A changing climate is buckling concrete and flooding roads. States are moving slowly to guard the nation’s infrastructure.

Environmentalists say the nation’s transition to electric vehicles probably won’t happen quickly enough to limit temperature rises unless Americans can be convinced to drive less. In a nation where vehicle infrastructure has been the priority, that would mean building new networks focused on walking, cycling and transit, advocates say.

Activists are clashing with transportation departments in some states over the effects their highway building plans could have on the environment. A group of teenage climate activists has been rallying in front of an Oregon Department of Transportation office every other week since spring with a demand: Stop building highways in Portland.

Adah Crandall, a high school sophomore and an organizer of the rallies, cited research that shows widening roads encourages more people to drive, which then pushes up tailpipe emissions. She said it’s been a battle to get people to link expanding the city’s freeways and climate change.

“We can invest in transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure,” Crandall said. “We’re not going to solve the climate crisis by doing things the way that we always have.”

Oregon Department of Transportation officials acknowledged that improving highways can encourage driving but said in a statement that the agency tries to collaborate with other parts of the government on efforts to counter that effect, such as promoting dense housing and transit access.

“Those actions, coupled with an accelerated push towards electrification, all aim towards reducing vehicle miles traveled per capita and reduced emissions from transportation,” the department said.

The Democrats’ proposal would establish the Federal Highway Administration as judge of the effectiveness of such measures. In creating a system of incentives and punishments, the plan would go further than previous ideas for tracking emissions — and beyond the infrastructure law President Biden signed last month.

It’s not clear whether the Senate, which was largely responsible for shaping the infrastructure bill, will adopt the idea as it takes up the economic package. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the leading Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the approach would undermine flexibility for states that was built into the infrastructure law. She has proposed striking it from the bill.

“This provision in the reckless tax and spending spree legislation seeks to undo that flexibility and give Washington unchecked power over a state’s transportation decisions,” she said in a statement.

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The infrastructure package allocates $6.4 billion to a transportation “carbon-reduction program” that states could use for projects ranging from transit facilities to energy-efficient streetlights. But advocates for an emissions-incentive system say it could help to steer the hundreds of billions of additional dollars for highways in a greener direction.

“A provision like this holds cities and state politicians accountable not just for the next two years, but for the next 20 years,” said Julia Thayne DeMordaunt, principal of the urban transformation team at environmental advocacy organization RMI.

Opposition to the emissions measure is deep-seated. The heads of five Western state transportation departments wrote to Capito’s committee last month saying the proposal would harm rural areas because options like congestion pricing or collaborations with transit agencies are not well-suited to sparsely populated places.

Were the proposal to become law, the officials wrote, it would bring “to the forefront the challenges of achieving [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions in rural States and averting unspecified ‘consequences.’"

The head of the influential organization that represents all the state transportation departments said it doesn’t make sense to single out those state agencies when there are multiple factors that influence emissions, including fuel economy standards for cars and local decisions about where to build shops, offices and homes.

“The concern that we have with it is that it doesn’t take a more holistic approach,” said Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “It’s a very targeted approach towards state DOTs. The issue of greenhouse gases is not one that state DOTs have sole control over.”

Kevin DeGood, a transportation researcher at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said infrastructure investments shape how people can get around: In areas where highways are the priority, people tend to drive, whereas more people take trains in areas with robust transit networks.

“It is farcical to suggest that state DOTs do not deeply influence greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector,” he said.

A similar dispute has played out before. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the Federal Highway Administration published rules that would have required states to track carbon emissions from transportation and set targets for future emissions. The system would have relied on a measure of gasoline and diesel consumption — which was rising before the pandemic — but it was withdrawn by the Trump administration.

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Colorado has recently elected to go it alone, proposing rules that would require estimates of emissions from new transportation projects to meet carbon-reduction goals. If the state or regional jurisdictions miss goals, they would face restrictions on spending. The state’s transportation commission is set to consider the proposal at a meeting next week.

But as in Oregon, the leaders of Colorado’s Department of Transportation have clashed with environmentalists over highway-building plans. The state says it can continue to invest in highways, but in a way that will open options for transit and people on foot. Environmental groups reject that notion, producing an analysis suggesting the construction plans would drive up emissions.

DeMordaunt said there might be short-term benefits to expanding highways but that it’s “not plausible to say that in the long term that highway construction and highway expansion means congestion reduction and pollution reduction.”

Oregon high school student Crandall said the rallies at the Transportation Department grew over the summer but that at 15 years old, she sometimes feels burned out on climate activism.

“As a high-schooler, my peers and I shouldn’t have to be spending our time organizing against freeway expansions because we’re worried about the climate impact. That’s pretty ridiculous,” she said. “I feel a responsibility to do that because I’m afraid of the decisions that will be made if we don’t keep showing up.”