Report shows Calif. could do more to rein in climate pollution from transportation

SACRAMENTO — Analysis from Closing the Climate Investment Gap, a groundbreaking new report from NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) on California’s state transportation infrastructure investments, shows a distinct misalignment between budgetary allocations and the state’s overarching climate goals. 

“California is not only depriving communities of clean mobility choices by continuing to fund projects that increase statewide car use, but also burying its head in the sand when it comes to climate change,” said Carter Rubin, a senior transportation lead at NRDC and the lead author of the report. “This is the issue that is contributing the most to our state’s climate pollution, and current transportation investments are enabling it.”

The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California. However, the report found that more than 80 percent of the over $22 billion allocated to state transportation projects is directed toward those which increase or maintain the amount of total vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Less than one-fifth of this funding is directed toward projects that reduce VMT by helping Californians opt out of congested roads and high prices at the pump. 

“Despite significant investments and policy leadership in clean transportation, California still leads the nation in climate pollution from transportation,” said Laura Tolkoff, Transportation Policy Director and Interim Chief of Policy at SPUR [the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association]. “Since 2008, state leaders have required local governments, including in the Bay Area, to holistically align your transportation investments with climate goals—it’s time for the State to do the same.”

While the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has acknowledged the benefits of state initiatives that will increase fuel efficiency and move away from dependence on fossil fuels, their 2030 Scoping Plan Update notes that California must reduce its per capita VMT by 25 percent to achieve state emissions-reduction targets. To achieve this benchmark, transportation funding must deliver increased transportation choices.

“Angelenos are experiencing the impacts of climate change and car dependence firsthand,” said Eli Lipmen, the executive director of Move LA. “This report should be a wakeup call to policymakers that we need to be all-in on investing in transportation options that get residents out of traffic and clean our air.”

To align California’s transportation budget with state climate goals, the report proposes four strategies:

  1. discontinuing funding for projects anticipated to increase VMT;
  1. converting projects without impact on VMT to those that will reduce it;
  1. develop more proposals for projects that reduce VMT and provide them stable long-term funding; and
  1. instituting more consistent and efficient tracking of projects’ impact on VMT and racial equity.

“For too long, low-income communities of color have been harmed by California’s unjust transportation system,” said Olivia Seideman, Climate Policy Coordinator at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “This legacy continues today with highway, interchange, and major roadway expansions in historically disinvested communities where Caltrans is moving forward with projects that will accelerate industrial development over community concerns about health and safety impacts. It is imperative that, to meet its climate and equity goals, California shifts its transportation spending away from projects that cause harm and further invests in programs like the Active Transportation Program that give all communities access to healthy and safe modes of public transportation and mobility.”

“NRDC’s study is an instructive, and jarring, reminder that we cannot manage what we do not measure,” said Jamie Pew, a Climate Policy Advisor with NextGen Policy. “California needs to invest deeply in transit and active mobility options to overcome its traffic-choked status quo and to have a fighting chance of meeting its climate goals. This study shows that we are still leaving billions of dollars on the table when it comes to making those investments.”

Source: “CA Department of Transportation Investments Fail to Align with State Climate Goals, New NRDC Report Finds,” Oct. 4, 2023 Natural Resources Defense Council press release.