ENVIRONMENT

Regional group looks for input on plan to reduce transportation emissions

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

A consortium created nearly a decade ago by Northeast and Middle Atlantic states to devise regional strategies for the reduction of greenhouse gases issued a draft plan Tuesday that would impose a cap on emissions stemming from fossil fuels used by the transportation sector.

Incorporated in a memorandum of understanding, the plan announced by the Transportation and Climate Initiative aims to slash tailpipe emissions by 25% over 10 years. It would set a regional emissions cap, then require large gasoline and on-road diesel distributors, such as fuel terminals, to pay the states millions of dollars for carbon credits if that cap is exceeded.

In the memo, TCI organizers estimated that the initiative could generate $7 billion a year, which would be made available for clean air programs like funding incentives for electric vehicles, especially low-polluting buses and trucks. Preference for funding awards would go to low-income areas and communities of color most impacted by air pollution.

But the plan could boost prices at the pump, as much as five to 17-cents a gallon, according to TCI estimates.

Proponents said the plan is worth it.

“The largest oil companies last year pulled in $84 billion in profits alone. They can afford to absorb these costs,” said Bruce Ho of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That said, if they don’t — if they choose to try and burden consumers with higher gas prices —the investments that the states are making in things like improved public transportation, […] those improvements will offset the costs of the policy and make our transportation system more efficient.”

The transportation sector is estimated to be responsible for 40% of greenhouse emissions and, according to preliminary TCI estimates, the initiative could eventually yield as much as $10 billion in yearly public health benefits, including fewer premature deaths and lower asthma rates.

The 12 states and Washington D.C. that make up TCI are not yet committed to the plan, and each will get to decide how to spend its share of the proceeds to support TCI program goals. A final memorandum will be issued in the spring and each state will get a chance then to decide whether to take part. The program, if enacted, could be operational by 2022, according to the draft memo.

TCI on Tuesday also said it was seeking input from interested parties and the public between now and the end of February.

Mass transit advocates expressed favor with the proposal, despite the possibility of paying more at the pump.

“For every time you fill up your tank, you’re paying a little bit extra,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, “we’re able to fix NJ Transit, we’re able to expand NJ Transit, we’re able to help set up rebates for people who want to buy electric vehicles so they don’t have to deal with gasoline at all anymore.”

But the Consumer Energy Alliance issued a statement Tuesday calling the plan “just a regressive tax on those who can afford it the least.”

“We want a cleaner environment, too, but much more clarity is needed in the TCI on what the actual, tangible benefits would be in return for additional economic hardship,” said Brydon Ross, the group’s vice president for state affairs.

TCI organizers say an independent poll of New Jersey residents shows 67% support the initiative.

Sifuentes said he expected state officials to sign on.

“It would be very surprising, we’ll say, to me if they don’t look at those revenues and say, ‘well, there are obvious places where we can invest those right now,’” he said.

Meanwhile, drivers interviewed Tuesday said, despite the plan’s clean air benefits, its cost was too high.

“That’s a bad idea,” said truck driver Agustin Torres. “It’s too expensive. The gas is too expensive right now. If they increase, it’s not going to be good.”

Pedro Dominguez, who also drives a truck, said he can’t afford to pay more at the pump. “Fuel’s already expensive as it is,” he said.

The regional initiative began in 2010, when officials from the member states — including New Jersey, during the administration of Republican Chris Christie — signed on to a Declaration of Intent to work collaboratively to reduce transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions.