Guest Op-Ed: Greenhouse Emissions Must Be Measured for Highway System Performance

Guest op-ed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), ranking minority member, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

August 18, 2016

Our transportation laws have long recognized the connection between the environment, our infrastructure, and the economy.  Since 1991, transportation planners have been required to develop plans that achieve national objectives, including improving the environment, sustaining the quality of life, as well as minimizing fuel consumption and air pollution.

In the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21, P.L. 112-141), which passed in 2012, Congress established a national goal to improve the performance of the transportation system while protecting and enhancing the environment.  In addition, MAP-21 directed the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish performance standards to improve decision-making and achieve this and other national transportation goals.

Together these provisions show that Congress intended transportation planners to work to accomplish national objectives for protecting and enhancing the environment and for DOT to set performance standards to reduce transportation-related air pollution, including carbon pollution.

That is why I am so pleased that the DOT has taken a very important step to address carbon pollution, safeguard public health, and improve the environmental sustainability of our transportation system.

In April, as part of a proposed rulemaking on national standards to assess transportation systems, DOT announced that it was considering whether to establish a performance measure to track, report and try to reduce carbon pollution. DOT took this step because MAP-21, which I helped pass as Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, directed the agency to establish performance measures to ensure the most effective investment of federal transportation funds.

We know that carbon pollution — including transportation sector emissions — is harmful to the health of Americans, particularly older adults, young children, and people with existing lung and heart programs. To achieve the environmental goals established by Congress, carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases must be part of the transportation planning process.

The U.S. transportation sector accounted for 26 percent of the country’s carbon emissions in 2014, making the sector’s emissions on par with the climate-changing pollution generated by electric power plants.

Establishment of a performance measure for carbon pollution is critically needed now. Since 1970, carbon emissions produced by the transportation sector have more than doubled, increasing at a faster rate than any other end-use sector. By requiring transportation agencies to track carbon emissions, we can evaluate whether transportation investments are effective in meeting the goal of protecting the environment.

We cannot have a strong economy unless we have a safe and reliable transportation network of roads, bridges, transit systems, railways, and airports that allows everyone to get to work, to school, and to marketplaces. Similarly, we must protect the air our families breathe to safeguard our health and maintain our quality of life. DOT’s proposal will do just that by reducing harmful carbon pollution in the transportation sector.

DOT has broad authority under transportation law in the U.S. Code to establish a performance-based approach to reduce transportation-related air pollution (see 23 U.S.C. §134(h)). It is clear that congressionally established goals, including “to protect and enhance the environment and improve quality of life,” cannot be achieved if carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases are not included in the performance measures for our transportation systems.

Adopting a carbon pollution performance measure is critically important to protecting public health and the environment, and DOT has clear authority to act. That is why I strongly urge DOT to address dangerous carbon pollution in its final rule.

The views of Senator Boxer are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

For an opposing view, see the op-ed by Senator Boxer’s Republican counterpart, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), here.

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