CSG in the News: A law to get climate and transportation on the same page in Maryland

February 8, 2024 | Greater Greater Washington | Bill Pugh

Maryland estimates it must invest about $1 billion a year in measures to quickly reduce planet-warming pollution to safe levels, which will provide benefits like lower energy costs and less flooding for its residents. However, if the state simultaneously spends billions in public funds on highway expansion, that makes it harder to achieve those climate goals.

That problem is what the Maryland Transportation and Climate Alignment Act (TCA) aims to address – making sure transportation projects do not worsen climate pollution and giving people options to travel more affordably and sustainably. Last week, Baltimore City Delegate Mark Edelson and Anne Arundel and Howard County Senator Clarence Lam introduced the TCA, bills HB 0836 and SB 0681, in the General Assembly. Fifteen organizations (including the Coalition for Smarter Growth, where I work) applauded the TCA’s common-sense approach.

How the TCA addresses Maryland’s biggest climate polluter

The TCA would require the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and regional transportation planning agencies to measure and mitigate any forecast increases in vehicle travel and climate pollution caused by proposed highway expansion projects over $10 million.

Projects that don’t pass muster would need to incorporate mitigation measures from a range of options, such as improving and expanding public transit, creating protected bike infrastructure, expanding broadband access, or locating jobs and amenities near where people live and near transit. These options help expand people’s transportation choices while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Colorado and Minnesota in recent years adopted legislation that ties transportation investments to climate goals and have been hailed as national models.

A three-legged stool for clean transportation

Electric vehicles, while a critical step, are not enough to meet climate goals – and don’t address other issues like the lack of more affordable and safer alternatives to get around. Decades of studies also show that expanding highways doesn’t solve congestion and results in people having to drive even more miles. This is why MDOT set a goal to reduce per capita Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) by 20% by the year 2050, and the state incorporated the goal in Maryland’s Climate Pollution Reduction Plan.

So think of reducing transportation emissions like a three-legged stool – the TCA is the third leg needed for Maryland’s climate strategy to succeed:

  1. Advanced Clean Cars II standards – adopted by Maryland last year
  2. Advanced Clean Trucks Rule – also adopted last year
  3. Transportation projects that reduce the need to drive for daily needs – the TCA!

The many benefits of helping Marylanders shift travel to cleaner modes

Preliminary analysis by the climate and energy think tank RMI shows that in addition to the climate benefits, Maryland would see major benefits for health, safety and wellbeing. And those are just from achieving the state’s current relatively modest VMT reduction goal.

Wisely spending Maryland’s limited transportation funds

A recent report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and UC Davis shows that the transportation investments and policies that get the United States closest to its climate target (“2050 Electrification + Mode Shift’) also save $2 trillion in public spending. Shifting money from endless highway expansion to projects that help people walk, bike and take transit, with supportive land use planning, makes fiscal sense.

Here in Maryland, instead of cutting local transit services and forcing Metro to defer rehabilitation projects, the state can do more to prioritize its transportation spending for people and the climate. For example, just in the DC suburbs, Maryland plans to spend $13 billion to expand highways and arterials over the next twenty years – expensive projects that overall won’t reduce congestion and also put our climate goals out of reach.

Residents want this change from the status quo

Public involvement last year for the 2050 Maryland Transportation Plan and for the DC region’s long-range transportation projects found the highest support among respondents for rail, bus, walking, and biking projects.

representative survey of residents in Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Frederick Counties in 2020 for the DC region’s long-range transportation plan, found that 84%, 92%, and 78% of their residents, respectively, agreed that “elected officials need to consider the impacts of climate change when planning transportation.”

Maryland residents who want state transportation investments to align with climate and equity goals should contact their state delegates and senator regarding the TCA.