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A Regional Transportation Program Poised to Include Guarantees for Disproportionately Impacted Communities

By Eleanor Fort

A just recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic downturn, which has hit communities of color and low-income families the hardest, require urgent investment in the communities that need it the most. When looking at our transportation system – how we move people and goods from point A to point B – it’s no different. Most people agree we want to build a transportation system that can get people where they need to go safely, reliably, and affordably, while also improving air quality and tackling climate change. These goals are possible, and we are on the cusp of addressing them on a monumental scale.  

Now, states across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic plus the Mayor of D.C. are considering a program that could generate new funds and include policy guardrails to ensure the program delivers meaningful benefits to those hit first and worst by poverty, pollution, and the COVID-19 crisis. We hope Dream Corps Green For All’s efforts and the hard work of our partners and supporters on this issue are about to pay off.  

$392 million in dedicated investments in Pennsylvania could fund a low income fare program for transit dependent riders. In Delaware, $36 million could fund a more robust air quality monitoring network and cumulative impact studies to address pollution in environmental justice communities. In Maryland, $196 million could fund electric buses, safer sidewalks and bike lanes, and expanded transit in low income communities.

Governors across 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states (CT, DE, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VA, and VT) and Mayor Bowser of D.C. have been collaborating through the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) to develop a program that significantly reduces tailpipe pollution and builds a more fair and just zero-emission transportation system. In a “cap-and-invest” program, participating states would place a limit on carbon emissions and require fuel distributors to purchase allowances for their pollution under the cap. The auction of allowances would generate funds, which states could then invest into needed transportation solutions such as mass transit, affordable housing, electric buses, and safer biking and walking paths.

The program has been projected to generate up to $6 billion across the region as a whole in the first year alone. Importantly, states are considering key equity provisions to ensure that communities are protected, have a seat at the decision-making table, and directly benefit from the program. Now, states are close to signing on the dotted line and kicking off the process to formally adopt the new program through legislation or regulation. 

This moment has been years in the making. Green For All has been working for over two years to bring together community leaders from across the region to influence the outcome of this policy. In late 2018, states announced they had settled on a “cap-and-invest” model for the program. Green For All reached out to key networks and alliances to open up the dialogue to impacted stakeholders. In February of 2019, we hosted a convening with environmental justice, racial justice, transit justice, and worker justice organizations across the region. Later that year, Green For All, along with 8 community-based partners, developed and delivered a set of Policy Design Principles that outlined our policy asks. And in December 2019, we released an Equity Toolkit for the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a full set of 10 policy recommendations with case studies and additional resources. In Spring of 2020, we helped draft a regional sign-on letter that over 40 advocacy organizations signed to push for two major components of an equitable carbon pricing program: a minimum of dedicated investments for disproportionately impacted communities and including these communities at the table.

As recently as this fall, we’ve continued to submit comments that articulate the details of how we want equity written into the policy design. In November 2020, Green For All hosted a webinar for state officials and regional advocates to hear from environmental justice leaders how policies adopted alongside the program could protect pollution-burdened communities and guarantee localized emission reductions. Throughout this multi year process, we have continually strived to push states to strengthen their commitments to equity, uplift the voices of our community partners, and honor the voices of those whose policy positions differ from ours. According to a Climate Nexus and Yale poll, 66% of voters across the region support their state governments prioritizing transportation investments toward communities of color who lack accessible transportation options and are impacted by vehicle pollution. This past October, TCI states proposed dedicating 35% of proceeds toward these communities, which they referred to as “overburdened and underserved.” This would dedicate approximately $2.1 billion across the region specifically for the communities who need it the most. A more detailed breakdown of how much the program could raise per state is listed in the table below.

Table 1. Projected proceeds and 35% dedicated investments in the first year of the regional program, by state
StateFunds generated in the first year of the program (in millions) 35% dedicated investments in the first year of the program (in millions) 
Connecticut$310.84$108.80
Delaware$103.28$36.15
D.C.$21.64$7.57
Maine$148.59$52.01
Maryland$562.42$196.85
Massachusetts$566.34$198.22
New Jersey$843.20$295.12
New York$1,250.49$437.67
Pennsylvania$1,121.65$392.58
Rhode Island$78.87$27.61
Vermont$63.04$22.06
Virginia$929.62$325.37
Total proceeds for the regional program in the first year (millions) $6,000.00$2,100.00

Table 1: Based on Energy Information Agency data on gasoline and diesel consumption in each state in 2018. The program has been estimated to raise up to $6 billion in the first year alone, assuming all states sign on. This would mean an allowance price of $16.13 per ton of carbon produced. Some states deciding not to participate would not impact estimated proceeds in other states, since the amount of carbon emitted in each state does not change, as long as the price per ton of carbon emitted is within this range.

The actual total investment amount generated by this program depends on the price that the market charges polluters for their emissions. Since allowances are sold at auction, there are market flexibilities in how much the program can raise. A number of policy factors will shape the strength of the program and therefore how much the market raises1. But one thing is clear: this program has the potential to generate millions of dollars for communities of color and low-income communities. 

For instance, $392 million in dedicated investments in Pennsylvania could fund a low income fare program for transit dependent riders. In Delaware, $36 million could fund a more robust air quality monitoring network and cumulative impact studies to address pollution in environmental justice communities. In Maryland, $196 million could fund electric buses, safer sidewalks and bike lanes, and expanded transit in low income communities. Green For All believes states should dedicate more than 35% of investments toward disproportionately impacted communities. However, if states choose to dedicate 35%, it is critical that this investment be targeted narrowly at the most impacted population in each state. By ensuring these dollars directly benefit the hardest hit communities, we’re making sure the program starts with those who need it the most. 

Equally important, communities should have a seat at the table. States have also announced they are considering establishing Equity Advisory Bodies in each state to guide program implementation. These groups would help decide which communities should be prioritized for investments, set criteria for evaluating project and program proposals, and ensure the state is reporting on the outcomes of the program, including analysis on the benefits like improved air quality in pollution-burdened communities and affordable transportation programs serving low-income households. They would increase state accountability and transparency. Green For All has advocated that these committees be made up of a majority of directly impacted community residents and that their decision-making responsibilities are more robust and clearly outlined beyond just an advisory role.  

Other provisions that Green For All has advocated for include: complementary policies that guarantee emission reductions in fenceline communities facing the worst cumulative impacts of pollution burden, workforce development and fair labor standards, and requiring the money be set aside in a dedicated lockbox. There will be opportunities for each state to strengthen the regional provisions and add additional detail when the policy is implemented at the state level. Whether agencies receive clear direction on how to design the program to achieve its goals will depend on the language Governors release in their forthcoming MOU and which states decide to sign on.

To make sure these transportation investments actually reach disproportionately impacted communities, advocates, community members, lawmakers, and agency officials will need to work together to ensure that funds are protected for TCI purposes, a significant percentage is dedicated to disproportionately impacted communities, and that members of these communities participate in the decision-making process. After years pushing for systemic change, we are eager to see a TCI program that seizes its potential to meaningfully invest in the health and wealth of low income communities and communities of color. This forthcoming announcement won’t be the end of our work together, but it’s a major milestone that will determine the success of the program. We hope it propels us to additional policy victories and a more just and fair transportation system that works for all communities. 

Green For All could not have come this far without the contributions of our community partners who have been willing to have tough conversations, dig deep into the policy details, and build trust across differences. Our activists and supporters in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have been with us every step of the way in solidarity, generating thousands of emails and tweets to their Governors as constituents and voters. None of the work would have been possible without funders. It’s truly a privilege to do this work full-time and be paid. 

Sign this petition to tell your Governor to commit to a regional transportation program that cuts both pollution and inequality! 

Footnote

1. This market-based policy follows relatively simple supply-and-demand economic principles. Nonetheless, all markets are shaped by policy, and this is no different. The policy factors that could influence the market include: how strict the carbon cap is and how swiftly the cap reduces each year, what transportation investments each state chooses, and whether the program has other loopholes such as cost containment reserves, credit banking, and offsets. New technological innovations have the potential to disrupt the market. A minimum price floor for allowances can help guarantee some sort of predictable minimum revenues. The more strictly you structure the market with policy guardrails, the more predictable the revenue stream.

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