American Power Act Invests in Future of U.S. Transportation

| by NRDC

By Colin Peppard

With millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico each day, increasing scientific urgency for action on climate change, and a new study that shows how clean energy can create millions of jobs over the next ten years, it’s critical that we take action on a comprehensive energy and climate plan this year. Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman recently released their American Power Act (APA) to great anticipation. As my colleagues look at various other elements of this bill, I want to focus on what the bill does for transportation.

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Transportation is a major part of our energy and climate problem. It represents nearly 30 percent of our global warming pollution and 70 percent of our oil addiction. Transportation energy use and emissions are also growing incredible rapidly, and are projected to continue well into the future.

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Unless we do something about it. Because transportation can also be a major part of the energy and climate solution. Below is a chart from an NRDC analysis that shows how we can reduce global warming pollution from the transportation sector by 80 percent in 2050.

Clearly, getting more efficient cars and trucks on the road and increasing the supply of low carbon fuels is key to this effort. But we also need to make our transportation system overall cleaner through travel efficiency strategies. Travel efficiency policies give people more transportation options and encourage more convenient and livable communities so that people don't have to use their car for every trip. And when people do travel by car, their trips will be less congested and shorter.

These strategies are highly effective for reducing global warming pollution and oil use. Last year’s landmark study Moving Cooler found that a broad package of such measures could reduce transportation sector carbon emissions by as much as 24 percent by 2050. Even higher reductions would be achieved when these strategies are coupled with the firm limit on global warming pollution included in the APA. The report found that these policies would also reduce transportation costs for consumers, saving billions of dollars over time.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has also recognized this potential. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently issued a Report to Congress on Transportation’s Role in Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In this comprehensive report, DOT found that a range of federal policy options could be implemented by Congress and the states to reduce transportation’s contribution to global warming and energy use. A similar analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency (pdf) found similar potential to reduce emissions and oil use in the transportation sector.

Considering all the potential for progress toward national energy and climate goals through transportation efficiency, NRDC was pleased to see that the APA invests significantly in such a vision for the future of transportation. The bill would dedicate more than $6 billion per year toward transportation infrastructure across the country. This amount is much more than any previous energy and climate legislation, and would represent the first new dedicated source of funding for transportation since 1993.

In addition to these major new transportation investments, the APA includes new policy tools to help guide and shape transportation projects to maximize their contribution to energy and climate goals. The bill would require US DOT to set a national goal for cutting global warming pollution and oil use in the transportation sector. States and large metropolitan regions would be asked to set similar targets and over time incorporate strategies to meet these goals into their transportation investment plans.

Part of the $6 billion in transportation investments would provide technical assistance to states and cities to help them develop these plans. Another portion would be allocated as performance grants to support those places that are developing the most aggressive strategies and making the most progress toward implementing them. This sort of performance-based approach is exactly what most transportation experts - including two congressional transportation commissions - have recommended to make the best use of our limited transportation dollars.

While the APA takes a big step towards a more efficient transportation network, like most important undertakings, additional steps will be needed to finish the job. Most of our federal transportation investments are guided by a bill that Congress passes every 6 years or so. Only such a multi-year transportation bill can unleash the potential for reducing emissions in the transportation sector all of the country, and only if such a bill builds on the foundation that would be laid with the transportation provisions in the APA.

In the mean time, the APA gets the ball rolling by offering a new policy tools and new financing to begin building a cleaner transportation system that can cut our oil use and prevent the next major oil spill from ever having the chance to occur.

From NRDC's Switchboard.