Editor's note: This post has been updated to reflect new information in the eighth paragraph.
Virginia’s transportation system is in need of serious improvements. Continuing with the status quo of perpetual highway expansion is outdated and isn’t meeting the needs or serving the best interests of our communities. Instead, it’s hurting our environment, health and wallets. Burning motor fuels produces almost half (45%) of the climate pollution in the commonwealth, and that tailpipe pollution also contributes to an influx of health problems and hospital visits that burden Virginians with health care costs.
Virginia’s public transportation services already operate on skeleton funding and a substantial transit shortfall is looming. The costs of sprawl, congestion, vehicle fuel and increasing tolls are growing the demand in communities for a greater range of transportation choices.
The good news is that Gov. Ralph Northam has an opportunity to shift us away from the dirty status quo and invest in Virginia’s future. It’s called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a regional program that would cap pollution from motor fuels and invest in clean, modern and accessible transportation options.
Given federal attacks on clean car standards, 2020 is the year state leaders must work together on regional solutions to move us forward on clean transportation. This spring, governors from across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, representing jurisdictions from Maine to Virginia, can show their residents that they’re serious about taking climate action for cleaner air and healthier communities.
The 2020 legislative session achieved long overdue progress on clean energy that would have been unthinkable in previous years. The new legislature, elected with a directive to take action on climate change, just passed a landmark bill that puts Virginia on a path to a 100% carbon-free electricity grid and eliminates pollution from our utilities by 2045. If Virginia is serious about addressing climate change, 2021 needs to be the year to make bold progress on clean transportation.
The revenue generated by TCI would go a long way to ensuring sufficient funding for public transportation in Virginia. Throughout this process, we must ensure that Virginia’s rural and low-income communities, currently with the least access to clean and safe transportation options, are first in line for investments and benefits.
Multiple polls in Virginia and in states across the region have shown broad, bipartisan support for a cleaner, safer, healthier and more equitable transportation system. Legislative and business leaders, urban and rural communities, and stakeholders across the political spectrum are all on board to reduce transportation pollution, create thousands of new jobs and save consumers billions of dollars in health care costs.
TCI projects major benefits. According to draft modeling released by participating states, reducing emissions from motor fuels by 25% could prevent more than 1,000 premature deaths and 1,300 asthma attacks per year in the region and raise up to $845 million for Virginia to start. Imagine the benefits under a stronger target, such as reducing transportation emissions by 45%.
In 2019, Richmond was ranked an asthma capital, 12th in the nation, by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Given the urgency of our climate and public health crises, states need to be more ambitious with policies that move us to 100% clean transportation. Reducing pollution from motor fuels just 20% to 25% in the next 12 years, the current modeling in the states’ plan, falls far short of Virginia’s own climate goals. A clean transportation system is equally as important as the transition to 100% clean energy. The strongest possible program would mean more emissions reduced, more jobs and wealth for communities, and more lives saved.
Opponents of TCI are mostly those energy companies and their well-funded allies who are happy to keep profiting off Virginians while polluting our communities as they take hard-earned dollars out of state. We can’t let their fearmongering prevent our communities from paving a different path forward.
We need to act now to improve our transportation and move forward on climate progress. Northam should listen to his constituents and join fellow governors in finalizing a strong and just regional Transportation and Climate Initiative to limit climate pollution from motor fuels this spring.