MBTA needs to get on decarbonization train

Equity calls for electrifying public transportation

MASSACHUSETTS IS ADVANCING its efforts to decarbonize by 2050, and the general consensus around the need to address climate change and the negative public health impacts of carbon emissions is something worth celebrating.

Since December, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs has submitted a draft clean energy climate plan for 2030 for public comment, and the Legislature has enacted into law a landmark climate bill that sets more aggressive compliance standards and defines, legislatively for the first time, environmental justice communities.  These are good and important steps forward. But there’s an important piece missing: an actionable plan to decarbonize transportation equitably.

There are many facets to equitable decarbonization. Here we address one of them: the impacts of our public transportation system on the overall effort to reduce emissions in ways that are specifically designed to take into account the unique attributes of environmental justice communities.  It starts with a fundamental question: will the MBTA, a state agency, be required to support the administration’s decarbonization efforts, and if so, in what ways?

Encouraging mode shift to public transportation is, and ought to be, an important element of any successful decarbonization plan. This is important for many reasons, notably transport equity and the time value of reducing carbon emissions sooner rather than later. The Clean Energy Climate Plan, and the MBTA, have not fully engaged this issue in a way that anyone should feel comfortable with. This is a large and overarching topic, one that requires a longer discussion.  One facet that deserves prompt attention is the MBTA’s current plan to invest in heavily polluting equipment that will set back emissions reduction efforts for a longer time than most people realize.

The T is planning to buy 160 diesel buses – you read that right, diesel buses – with options for hundreds more, and if purchased with federal money these vehicles will be on the road for 12 years. The T also has no timeline for electrifying its bus fleet in line with New York City’s MTA, which plans to electrify its bus fleet by 2040 or the entire state of California, which plans to do the same for its transit agencies.

To make matters worse, the T has proposed buying 25 more diesel locomotives for the regional rail fleet.  Diesel locomotives pollute heavily, and they are profoundly inferior in cost and reliability to electric equivalents. Locomotives are typically brought into service for 30-40 years, so if the T buys these, they will be calling the question on decarbonization accountability (and service quality) for decades to come.

If you wanted to buy the most unreliable, most expensive to maintain, and most heavily polluting equipment to power your rail system, you would buy more diesel locomotives.  In view of the availability of electric multiple units as alternatives to these locomotives (EMUs could be placed into service quickly on the Providence Line and in fairly short order on a newly electrified Fairmount Line and on the environmental justice portion of the Newburyport line running from Lynn to Boston), this decision must be considered as a deliberate one, which is mind-boggling in view of the Commonwealth’s position on decarbonization and the clear need to improve service quality at the T while reducing long term maintenance costs.

Despite the direction of the FMCB, and the best advice received from its own rail vision panel, the T does not have a planned date to have its fleet electrified and these new purchases will make it hard to do so in a timely manner.

To be fair to the T, the Legislature hasn’t been enthusiastic about funding transit and rail decarbonization. The T shows their capital spending being cut in half by the end of this decade. This should be raising alarm bells on Beacon Hill, where legislators are pushing for decarbonization mandates for the T; these mandates could dramatically harm service without new funding. Public agencies should be setting an example, and the one being set at this moment by the T runs contrary to both the legislative intent as expressed in the climate bill and the Baker administration’s own decarbonization plan.

Here’s the bottom line: Massachusetts is not close to getting it right when it comes to decarbonization equity.  And this article is meant to highlight just certain reasons why that is the case. If you believe in the importance of decarbonization equity, then you wouldn’t be investing in diesel buses that will pollute inner core environmental justice communities for a decade or more, and you certainly wouldn’t invest in diesel locomotives that will have a similar impact on environmental justice communities across eastern and central Massachusetts. Moreover, the reality is that the state’s decarbonization plan is almost exclusively about a long-term plan to transition everyone with a car to an electric vehicle.

The state’s decarbonization plan contemplates massive (upwards of $800 million) public subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles as well as the deployment of charging infrastructure.  By definition, those subsidies will go mostly to extremely wealthy communities that are also extremely white. Excellent reporting from Christian MilNeil at StreetsblogMass has already shown that the current MORE-EV program provides a massive wealth transfer to well-off people. “In all, 79 percent of the MOR-EV program’s rebates (about $30 million) went to car buyers in ZIP codes where the median household income exceeds the statewide median income.” Less than 10 percent went to communities in the 80th percentile or below.

But what about those who cannot afford to own or maintain a car even with subsidies? Or those who don’t want a car or are unable to operate one?  In many communities, the percentage of people who fall into the first category can reach upwards of 30 percent. What about those in the environmental justice communities that will continue to bear the brunt of MBTA diesel emissions, and of particulate matter emissions from all vehicles, including electric vehicles?  We know that this is a serious public health issue, and while decarbonization is primarily about reducing carbon emissions, we cannot have an equitable plan if it disregards the continued and potentially worsening particulate matter emissions issue.

At this moment, there is no subsidy equity plan for Massachusetts, and it is unconscionable for a decarbonization plan to deliberately leave already disadvantaged people behind. A truly equitable plan would call for investments in not just electric vehicles but in electrifying public transit. That investment is the only one that tackles climate change, congestion, housing affordability, and quality of life at the same time.

Meet the Author

Jarred Johnson

CEO and development director, TransitMatters
Massachusetts deserves a comprehensive, equitable pathway toward decarbonization.  We won’t get there without short term commitments to transit and rail investments that support mode shift, without every state agency, including the MBTA, doing its part and setting the right example, or without firm commitments to provide decarbonization and subsidy equity to those people who are not privileged to share in the opportunities of personal EVs. We have to think of those in places where urban and housing design make it virtually impossible to provide equitable charging facilities and irresponsible to push more congestion and parking demand.

Jarred Johnson is CEO of TransitMatters.