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Transportation & Climate Initiative Touted for Benefits to Rural Communities
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
06:04AM / Sunday, November 15, 2020
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Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides talks about the unique transportation needs of rural communities.


State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, participates in Tuesday's webinar.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A multi-state plan to reduce carbon emissions and invest in more sustainable transportation could be in action as soon as 2022, advocates said last week.
 
And local leaders are working to make sure that rural areas don't get left behind.
 
The Transportation and Climate Initiative, which looks to replicate the model of the 2007's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, seeks to cap greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, create a market for distributors of fossil fuels to buy allowances and invest the proceeds of those sales into cleaner transportation.
 
By the end of this year, the 12 states and District of Columbia who are part of the TCI are expected to finalize a memorandum of understanding that would govern the compact, and each state will need to decide whether it wants to sign on to the plan.
 
Last Tuesday, the Boston-based non-profit Transportation for Massachusetts hosted a webinar to talk about how the money generated from the TCI could benefit rural communities.
 
About 160 people attended the 90-minute event, which sought feedback both through small breakout sessions and live surveys about the priorities attendees preferred for how the initiative would function and what it would finance.
 
"Many of us who grew up outside Boston and outside eastern Mass are all too aware that a solution that works for Boston or Cambridge doesn't work in Ashfield or Lakeville," state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides said.
 
"We've seen what climate change can do in rural communities, and, in fact, rural communities in New England face some of the biggest risks from climate change, particularly when it comes to the vulnerability of our transportation infrastructure. We've also seen that rural communities can really benefit from climate solutions."
 
The impact of climate change was on full display in Western Massachusetts nine years ago when Tropical Storm Irene blew through the region and wreaked havoc on local roads, forcing, among other things, a 12-mile detour for a stretch of Route 2.
 
"In parts of Eastern Mass, if a part of a road goes out, it's no big deal because there's probably a parallel road a few miles away," Transportation for Massachusetts Director Chris Dempsey said. "When Route 2 goes out, it's a severe disruption."
 
No one is suggesting that the TCI, in and of itself, will reverse climate change, but by addressing the single largest source of carbon pollution in the Northeast, it would be a start.
 
And, like its predecessor, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, TCI would attack the problem two ways: by giving fuel distributors an economic incentive to produce cleaner products and providing municipalities and individuals with the capital to invest in technology to help lower demand for those fossil fuels.
 
"What RGGI did was say to power plants that they were still allowed to emit pollution, but they were required to purchase permits or allowances to account for the pollution," Dempsey said. "What this has done is given them an incentive to be cleaner. This cap has worked really well at limiting emissions.
 
"Sales of permits from RGGI [colloquially referred to as 'Reggie'] have been reinvested into green energy. You may know this as the MassSave program or the Green Communities program. Both were funded by RGGI funds."
 
Catherine Ratte of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission said the TCI would create a similar funding stream for transportation innovation.
 
"For the last 10 years, I have been working with many of our member municipalities on the Green Communities program," Ratte said. "Most towns in Western Massachusetts are certified Green Communities. So, if you think about what RGGI has done for buildings, TCI can do that for vehicles, for our transportation system.
 
"Green Communities has brought millions of dollars to rural communities, to communities across the commonwealth, to invest in making their municipal buildings more energy efficient, thereby saving taxpayers money but also giving the communities an opportunity to lead by example and show their residents that the transition to energy efficiency and clean energy is feasible and doable. … There's nobody who can't take part.
 
"We all believe the Transportation Climate Initiative can do the same thing for the transportation system."
 
It will be up to the individual states (and Washington, D.C.) who ultimately sign on to the TCI to decide how money will be invested. Among the ideas on the table: replacement of diesel-powered school buses with electric versions, expansion of public transportation options and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.
 
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, asked Dempsey during Tuesday's Q&A whether investments from the TCI will find their way to the commonwealth's regional transit authorities, like the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority.
 
"We all, as a community, and you, as a legislator, have a role in thinking about how we want to direct TCI funds," Dempsey said. "The governor has been very clear that he would like to see at least 50 percent of TCI funds be invested in public transit across the state, not just the [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority], but also, of course, the RTAs.
 
"So we could expect some TCI money would include a dedicated stream of funds to RTAs and/or some sort of grant program that would allow the RTAs not only to expand service but also, potentially, to convert some of their fleets to more efficient and electric vehicles."
 
Advocates of the TCI also are thinking holistically at the issue of "transportation," arguing that investments from the initiative could go toward expanding rural broadband in order to facilitate people working from home and cutting down on commutes.
 
And transportation investment could include spending that increases resilience of local infrastructure against severe weather events.
 
Another attendee asked Dempsey whether TCI funds might go toward helping rural communities to upgrade their roads and bridges.
 
"TCI has direct and complementary benefits," said Steve Long, the director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. "The main thrust of TCI is to reduce emissions and improve mobility. But I think states recognize they also need to have investments in transportation infrastructure … to complement what TCI is doing.
 
"I think there would be an opportunity for improvement of rural dirt roads to be included in the complementary investments. I do know in some states like Maine and Vermont, there is a strong desire to have some of the money go to infrastructure, especially storm-resistant culverts and bridges. It's an open question that's being discussed among states."
 
None of this investment will come without some shared sacrifice.
 
Last December, the TCI planners released estimates for the impact on a price of a gallon of gasoline from the "cap-and-invest" program. For a cap that reduced carbon emissions by 25 percent, the cost would be a 17-cent per gallon hike at the pump; for a more modest 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, the impact would be 5 cents per gallon for consumers.
 
But advocates can point to survey data from the TCI's seven largest states, including Massachusetts, that shows strong support for the initiative.
 
Gov. Charlie Baker has been a strong advocate for the TCI, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, talked Tuesday about how the initiative could specifically benefit rural areas like the sprawling Berkshire-Hampshire-Franklin-Hampden District he serves.
 
"For me, I've been focused a lot on electric vehicles and infrastructure for electric vehicles, including in a climate bill we passed earlier in the Senate" Hinds said. "Ultimately, what it points to, for me, is we really need to have the funding sources for green transportation, especially targeted policies that fit for rural transportation."
 
More information about the TCI can be found at transportationandclimate.org.
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