To fight climate change, transportation must be a top priority

July 1, 2019 11:05 pm

Traffic moves across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge along the Capital Beltway during rush hour one day before the 4th of July holiday July 3, 2018, between Virginia and Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After watching the first two Democratic Presidential debates, where 20 candidates debated a whole host of issues, we came away disappointed. According to Vox, climate change got only 15 minutes worth of airtime out of four hours’ worth of debates. And during those 15 minutes, no candidate mentioned one of the top producers of greenhouse gas emissions, transportation.

Climate change is real. Since 1975, the average global temperature has risen nearly an entire degree Fahrenheit. By 2050, if we don’t do anything, it is projected that the average temperature in Virginia will be about four degrees warmer than it was in 2000. With that type of increase comes a whole host of consequences including stronger storms with greater damage, higher cost of living, more frequent flooding and rising sea levels just to name a few.

While much of the focus has been placed on the emissions related to electricity generation and industrial production, the one area that regularly gets overlooked is our transportation network’s impact on our environment.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report “U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks”, transportation is tied for the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The report states that transportation’s nationwide portion of our greenhouse gas emissions has increased from 24% in 1990 to 28.8% in 2017, while energy production’s portion has decreased from 36.1% (1990) to 29.6% (2017).

Transportation is a much more significant factor here in Virginia. The commonwealth’s portion of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation has risen from 43% in 1990 to 45.6% in 2016. This follows a parallel trend in Federal Highway Administration data which reports that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on Virginia’s roadways increased 40.4% between 1990 and 2016. The vast majority of those VMT’s came from automobiles powered by fossil fuels. Today, transportation is the cause of more greenhouse gas emissions in Virginia than industry (11.1%) and electricity generation (32.1%) combined.

This is one of those times where we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to follow the data and learn from the states with the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. The 10 states with lowest per capita transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions average 4.52 metric tons of emissions per citizen, which is about 20% lower than Virginia’s average.

Having Virginia become one of the top 10 states with the fewest greenhouse gas emissions per capita should be our long-term goal.

However, there is some low-hanging fruit that we can pick by aiming to become one of the top 20 states with the fewest greenhouse gas emissions per capita. To do that we need to increase our Amtrak ridership to four million passengers annually, grow our yearly transit ridership to 360 million trips, lower our vehicle miles traveled per driver to 13,000 or less, switch 2,000 fossil fuel vehicles for electric vehicles and increase the number of commuters getting work by walking or biking by a third.

Virginia is making some progress.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation are investing $774 million to sustain, improve and expand our passenger rail network including increasing Amtrak service by 16%. DRPT is also spending more than $12 million in state funding for electric buses and fast chargers which includes $9 million from the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust. Alexandria’s DASH Transit, Hampton Roads Transit, and Blacksburg Transit will be the recipients of the program funding.

Rail, transit and bike/ped have a huge role to play in helping Virginia and our nation save our planet. Not to mention, they much more affordable than the trillions of dollars it will cost to replace every fossil-fuel powered car with an electric vehicle. With more cars off of the road, not only do we reduce emissions, but we have a faster and safer commute. We may not all use transit and rail, but we all benefit from them. Changing a century of transportation trends will not be easy, but we are running out of road to kick the can down before the impacts of climate change become irreversible.

Danny Plaugher is executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail. He may be reached at [email protected]. Lisa Guthrie is executive director of the Virginia Transit Association. She may be reached at [email protected].

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