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High Octane Ideas for a Cleaner Transportation Sector

A new study from the Massachusetts Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth argues for a bold public policy to counter the challenges of climate change and inequality over the coming two decades. Titled “Choices for Stewardship,” the report calls policymakers, municipalities, and industry to action with a broad agenda of 18 recommendations for modernizing the state’s transportation sector.

The report is plain about some of the challenges that the state is likely to face: congestion will threaten to “choke” economic growth, unequal prosperity and access may leave some Bay Staters behind, and climate change will mean that increasingly volatile weather could disrupt even the best-laid plans.

In the ideal future envisioned by the plan, the gasoline-fueled car will no longer be king. Rush hour roads full of single-occupancy, internal-combustion vehicles will look increasingly anachronistic as improvements in public transportation and a multi-modal planning process expands options for getting around. As the report’s authors argue, transportation must be seen as a means rather than an end, with the goal of transportation planning being to maximize the movement of people rather than cars. The report even revisits a historic third-rail in Massachusetts politics by floating congestion pricing as an approach to reducing traffic on area highways.

Other notable recommendations include:

  • On-demand public transit services and integrated ride-share/public transit services;
  • Standardization of 5G and other telecommunication improvements across the state;
  • Corridors dedicated to micro-mobility vehicles like electric scooters;
  • New regulatory structures to ensure safe proliferation of connected/autonomous vehicles; and
  • A new public-private initiative called the Transportation Technology Transformation Initiative and a prize for innovation in transportation (“MassX”).

Amid the raft of suggestions, arguably the two most important relate to new regulations to reduce and ultimately eliminate vehicle emissions.

First, to meet the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas reduction targets codified in the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), the report recommends that the governor set a goal that all new cars, light-duty trucks, and buses sold in Massachusetts be electric or use another technology that meets the same emissions standards by 2040, and that the same requirement be implemented for state vehicles by 2030. Though the GWSA target is set for 2050, the report argues that fleet standards should be rolled out earlier to account for slow fleet turnover. Since cars stay on the road for a decade or so, ending new combustion vehicles by 2040 would see them largely off the roads by 2050.

To address vehicle emissions in the interim, the report recommends a regional cap-and-invest program for the Northeast. This program could function like the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which limits emissions from power plants. Under this initiative, regulators establish limits on total emissions and periodic auctions enable the purchase or sale of extra allowances. In the case of transportation emissions, some entity would receive allowances and be able to buy or sell extra credits. The entity would likely pass the cost of these credits through to motorists that use fossil transportation fuels like gasoline (which the report suggests might add an additional $7 to the typical motorist’s monthly fuel bill). The Program’s administrators would use revenues to fund investments in “clean transportation and other pressing transportation needs” to promote a more equitable, dynamic, and resilient transportation network throughout the region.

To address shortcomings in the existing EV charging network and concerns about unequal access and unfair cost-shifting, the report offers several suggestions:

  • The state should ensure that disadvantaged communities and those living in multi-unit dwellings have access to charging stations, and the state should expand incentives to make EVs affordable for a larger swatch of consumers.
  • The utilities, in conjunction with regulators, should be encouraged to promote new markets and rate structures that ensure efficient and equitable integration of EVs onto the grid.

The wheels have already started turning on the regional plan. On December 18, 2018, Massachusetts and eight Northeast and Mid-Atlantic neighbors announced plans to create an integrated transmission cap network over the coming year. While New Hampshire, Maine, and New York are still holdouts, the latter two are expected to join the coalition in the near future. With a critical mass of states on board, the new regional program promises to put a dent in total transportation emissions over the coming decades.