Pandemic demands rethinking costly Transportation Climate Initiative
Major shift in commuting patterns weakens Baker administration case
From a work-life balance perspective, many have cheered their improved productivity, reduced commuting cost, and up to two to three hours of extra daylight with family, friends, or Netflix upon logging-off from work.
Not missed are the crowded buses, subway cars, trains, or congested highways in and out of Boston. According to a Pioneer Institute survey, 63 percent of workers indicate that they would like to continue to work from home at least two to three days a week after a COVID-19 vaccine is found, or business returns to “normal.” This is an acceleration of a trend already underway, as Google, over the past two years, has seen a 210 percent increase in search terms like “remote jobs.”
Less commuting and idling on highways and city streets means less greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. According to a special report from the University of California at Davis’s Road Ecology Center, Massachusetts saw an 83 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled between the first week of March and mid-April, which translates into similar levels of reductions in fuel use-related emissions. A May study by Nature Climate Change found that daily global CO2 emissions from all sources fell by 17 percent by early April as compared to 2019 levels, with roughly half of that reduction coming from surface transport alone.
Common sense would dictate those leading our environmental agencies would consider this unexpected break from congestion and vehicle pollution and quickly measure the positive impact on our environment. Instead, Massachusetts Environmental and Energy Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, while presenting at an Environmental League of Massachusetts webinar last month, called it a “blip” in reductions that was “not worth modeling.” She went further, and argued that the health crisis has only strengthened the administration’s urgency to pursue the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI).
For those unfamiliar, TCI is an 11-state (plus Washington, DC) compact aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector through a cap-and-invest program. In Massachusetts, TCI represents a $5-7 billion dollar tax on gasoline and diesel fuel paid by Massachusetts motorists with proceeds intended for emission reduction investments. Motor fuel suppliers will be required to purchase carbon credits based on sales in the state, with the cost of these credits passed along in the pump price of gas, which in just the first year would increase from 17-25 cents per gallon. TCI supporters readily admit that emissions will only be reduced, at most, an additional 6 percent after 10 years. To date, only Gov. Baker has publicly signaled his intent to join TCI among New England leaders.Before Massachusetts goes too far down the TCI road, burdens its motorists and adds unnecessary and economically-damaging costs to the delivery of packages, food, and other goods and services with another gas tax, isn’t it the responsibility of Secretary Theoharides to consider our new work from home reality and the corresponding economic and public health benefits? The author of the UC Davis study concluded that “the US public could embrace the multiple unintended benefits of the pandemic response and retain some level of reduction of harm from travel and economic activity.”
Perhaps, as academics suggest, we should take a hard look at this supposed “blip” and consider that it may not be an aberration, but instead may be our new reality.