THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE on Thursday rolled out Senate Bill 2819, “An Act Driving Climate Policy Forward.” The bill was apparently meant to showcase the Senate as leading the way for a more sustainable, net zero carbon future. The goal is laudable, but the approach – at least as it relates to the transportation sector – is truly awful.
I wonder whether the bill’s title was the product of someone’s unusual sense of humor. I mean, “driving climate policy forward” is pretty funny, considering that your transportation policy is all about . . . driving. That’s a pretty good word joke, and I tip my hat to the author.
As funny as that is, it can’t diminish the sadness many of us felt when we read about a bill that did little but double down on the inequitable and unsustainable transportation decarbonization plan of the outgoing gubernatorial administration. A transport sector decarbonization plan that puts all of its eggs in the electric vehicle basket is a seriously short-sighted approach.
The Senate bill, like the moth to the flame, follows the beguiling allure of electric vehicles and fails to engage in the necessary work of developing a truly effective, equitable plan. It ignores the need to generate short-term carbon emission reductions, ignores the importance of decarbonization subsidy equity, directs the MBTA to buy an electric bus fleet with no funding for the massive new infrastructure that will be necessary to maintain the vehiclem, and, most egregiously, fails to direct the T to do something it can and should be doing now: electrifying the regional rail system, replacing dirty, black carbon spewing, unreliable and expensive diesel locomotives with electric multiple units.
This can’t be the first time the authors of the Senate bill have heard about this, unless they haven’t been paying attention to the TransitMatters white papers, research, and reports that have persuasively made the case for an electrified regional rail system. Those of us advocating for a more sustainable and equitable transportation system have been writing and talking about these matters for many years now. By ignoring this important initiative, the bill presents itself as an incomplete and badly informed document.
A Massachusetts decarbonization plan must be rooted in short, medium, and long term actions that state officials can take and control. Acting sooner than later to realize carbon emissions reductions will be important to the success of any plan. There is a time value to carbon emissions reduction because emissions are cumulative, and therefore carbon reductions now have more value than carbon reductions in the future.
The bill would have more success at reducing carbon emissions and establishing a more fair and equitable approach to transport sector decarbonization if it focused on and funded travel demand reduction and mode shift strategies that can have a measurable impact on emissions reduction while the Commonwealth advances a long-term electric vehicle strategy. That means, among other things, taking steps to ensure that the MBTA and regional transit authorities, or RTAs, have the operating budget capacities to provide more frequent, reliable services. It also means funding specific initiatives that will encourage more people to choose transit or rail rather than driving. Especially as an urban strategy, decarbonization begins with reducing vehicle miles traveled by providing more people with more reliable and safe multi- modal alternatives to driving.
Mode shift can be influenced by relatively affordable investments that can be made in the short term. For example, running more service, with greater frequencies, on the assets we have, including much more frequent bus service and 30 minute headways on the commuter rail system; accelerating construction of dedicated bus lanes to improve bus frequencies and capacity; building low cost/high impact improvements like the Red/Blue Connector to improve access and connectivity; fulfillment of the Phase 1 Regional Rail vision for inner core intercity rail in the immediate short term, with a commitment to implement full electrification of the regional rail system by 2035. Investments in regional rail that make it more rider-friendly would include construction of high-level platforms to reduce dwell times and conversion of the entire system to an electric powered system operated with EMUs. Senate drafters applauded themselves for getting granular; well, they didn’t get granular enough when it came to transport sector decarbonization – and they need to, or their efforts will fall far short.
The Senate bill might also have funded more municipal efforts to build safe, protected cycling lanes. As cities enable more and safer cycling as a response to the pandemic and climate change, a new generation has been drawn to urban cycling. A recent report underscores the effectiveness of cycling as a short-term measure to reduce emissions, finding that a new bikeshare station reduces vehicle ownership per household by 2.2 percent, vehicle miles traveled per person by 3.3 percent, and per-capita vehicular greenhouse gas emissions by 2.9 percent. Another study recently found that carbon emissions could be reduced by as much as 12 percent if 15 percent of urban vehicle miles traveled were shifted to e-bikes.
Finally, the Senate bill utterly fails to deal with the fundamental and serious inequity that comes with publicly funded subsidies for electric vehicle purchases. Funding these subsidies with $100 million in public dollars, the Senate appears to ignore the reality that most or all of that money will go to wealthier (largely White) state residents. Those who cannot afford to own a car, or cannot afford to buy even a subsidized electric vehicle\, are left behind. So, too, those who choose not to drive are ignored. So where is the subsidy equity? Subsidy equity would mean a dollar-for-dollar investment in transit, rail, and cycling. Subsidy equity would provide subsidy parity for electric vehicle purchases and use of transit and rail. But there’s none of this in the Senate bill.
I do not oppose the transition to electric vehicles, indeed I embrace it. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what an all-electric vehicle future means. Primarily, it means continued traffic congestion, continued poor land use, continued particulate matter emissions – in other words, every negative externality of today’s auto mobility system other than carbon emissions will remain present in an all-electric vehicle future. We can do better than use public funding to enable that future, without any effort to balance the scales in favor of more sustainable, healthier, sensible mobility solutions. Right now, neither the current Baker administration plan nor this Senate bill gets this balance right.
I have no doubt the Senate bill was well intentioned, but we all know that the road to a bad outcome is often paved with good intentions. Good intentions without a balanced approach, good intentions that aren’t equitable, good intentions that leave many of our state’s residents ignored and left behind – such good intentions cannot form the basis of a transport sector decarbonization effort most advocates can or should rally around.
We can do better. We ought to insist on doing better. This bill needs a lot of work before it will pass muster as a credible, forward-looking approach to decarbonizing the state’s transport sector.
James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a board member of the advocacy group TransitMatters.