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Politics

Transit Agencies Are Climate Agencies, Too

With emissions from transportation rising, it’s up to the states to fix it.

Highways and a desert.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Last September, Jeanie Ward-Waller, a deputy director at California’s state transportation department, was called into her supervisor’s office and told she was being removed from her role, no explanation given. But Ward-Waller thinks she knows what happened.

A few weeks earlier, she’d threatened to blow the whistle on the agency for a highway repaving project that she believed was covertly — and illegally — going to widen the road. Under state law, highway expansions require environmental review and public input. It was also exactly the kind of project the agency was supposedly moving away from, according to its climate action plan, which said it would prioritize alternative forms of transit.

“Caltrans leaders believe they are widening highways in the public interest, despite decades of empirical research proving otherwise, and the agency’s own policies requiring solutions that reduce driving,” Ward-Waller wrote in an essay for the San Francisco Chronicle after leaving the agency.

Ward-Waller’s firing riled up climate advocates and sustainable transit proponents, and not just in California. (Multiple people I interviewed for this story mentioned it to me.) State transportation agencies all over the country are stuck in this kind of outdated thinking, critics say. Transportation is the biggest source of emissions in the U.S., and one of the only sectors where emissions grew last year. But most state transportation agencies are still funneling most of their budgets into road expansion projects. Few have taken on addressing climate change as part of their mission.

“State departments of transportation are kind of the next frontier for climate advocacy to conquer,” Justin Balik, the state program director for Evergreen Action told me. “There’s a lot of blue states where the transportation decisions are still divorced from the climate conversation.”

It’s a pivotal moment to change that, Balik argued. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed in 2021, has been sending billions of dollars of flexible funding into states for transportation projects. The Biden administration will also soon begin requiring these agencies to set greenhouse gas reduction targets. Although the targets are non-binding and states won’t be penalized for failing to achieve them, they will have to regularly report on their progress.

States have until February 1 to submit their initial plans to the federal Department of Transportation. So on Monday, climate and clean transportation advocates around the country sent letters to the governors of 22 states urging them to set targets consistent with reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The letters ask officials to consider what’s achievable both through vehicle electrification and by reducing highway expansion.

“Electrification is critical and essential, but it’s not enough, just looking at the math, in terms of how long it's going to take for the vehicle fleet to turn over,” said Balik. “We need to think about the transportation system holistically and stop digging the hole deeper when we’re making transportation investment decisions.”

He directed me to a report published by the Georgetown Climate Center after the infrastructure law passed. The policy think tank modeled two scenarios, one where about a third of the $600 billion of flexible funding went to highway expansion, and one where states put more toward public transit and road maintenance. It found that the first scenario would increase emissions 1.6% by 2032, compared to business-as-usual, whereas the second would enable deeper emissions cuts — 1.3% more — than would otherwise have been expected with market forces and existing policies.

The reason is an effect called “induced demand,” and it’s at the center of this whole story. When state departments of transportation evaluate projects, they use models that assume building new roads or adding lanes increases the flow of traffic — thereby reducing congestion and reducing emissions. But real-world evidence has shown that expanding highways, especially in dense areas, actually encourages more people to drive — and within a few years, the traffic is just as bad as before.

“They’re vastly overestimating the benefits of expansion projects,” Miguel Moravec, a senior associate at RMI told me. “If the models are not capturing the reality that expanded lanes lead to more traffic, then you can’t really seriously engage with the pollution problem.”

The modeling is a symptom of a more entrenched issue. State Departments of Transportation are big agencies that can have thousands of staff, many of whom have been in their roles for decades. (Caltrans, for example, has more than 22,000 people.) The culture of these offices is built around an old paradigm where the primary metric of performance is to relieve traffic congestion — to help people drive places more quickly and easily.

“There’s a new movement to say, maybe it’s about helping people get to where they need to go efficiently, affordably, and safely,” Matt Frommer, the senior transportation advocate at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, told me. “But that is a really hard shift to make in a giant institution like a state DOT. Because all of the models and all of the policies and funding decision processes have been set up around the old paradigm.”

Even in places where that’s beginning to shift, there are still long-term challenges. California, for example, has had a law on the books for a decade that says the state must assess the impacts of transportation projects by measuring the amount of driving they induce or reduce — not by their effect on congestion. But local advocates like Jamie Pew, a climate advisor at NextGen Policy, say this has failed to move the state meaningfully away from highway expansion.

Ward-Waller’s firing brought long-simmering criticisms of the state’s climate strategy to a boil, he said. “For all of the money that we’re investing in new transit infrastructure, electrification, and green mobility options, as long as we continue to invest in freeway expansion, we’re not going to see the progress in emissions that we need to see.”

There are a few states that are starting to do things differently. Colorado, for example, has seen a significant shift in the way the state approaches transportation projects. In 2021, the state legislature passed a law directing its transportation agency to set regional greenhouse gas reduction targets and incorporate them into project planning. Frommer said the new approach has already resulted in real changes. In 2022, the state scrapped a long-planned highway expansion through downtown Denver after it was found that it would undermine the agency’s targets.

“That freed up hundreds of millions, if not over a billion dollars for other multimodal projects to help enable transit, biking and walking,” said Frommer.

The state that is leading the nation in innovative transportation policy, however, is Minnesota. Like Colorado, it has transportation-specific greenhouse gas targets. But it also has a specific goal to reduce “vehicle miles traveled” — a measure of how much people drive. Last year, lawmakers passed a big transportation package that gave more teeth to these goals, requiring the state’s DOT take them into account in decision making. It also went a step further and said that if the agency moves forward with any projects that induce demand, it has to offset them with additional projects that get people out of their cars.

The new federal rule requiring state transportation departments to report on their progress achieving declining greenhouse gas targets could help nudge more states in this direction. As climate advocates tell me on a weekly basis, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

Green
Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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