The call for a Green New Deal has fired imaginations because those three words capture the only realistic answer to the existential emergency of climate change. We must rapidly decarbonize our economy—starting not someday, but today. At the same time, we must build a bridge to post-fossil fuel prosperity by creating new green jobs and investing in a clean economy.
While true transformation will require leadership at a national and global scale, states like Washington also have power to lead the way. With Democratic majorities in both houses and a Governor who has positioned himself as a climate champion, now is the moment to infuse the spirit of a Green New Deal into state policy. Indeed, Washington residents who want to see urgent action on climate have some reason to cheer, as bills mandating clean electricity and more energy-efficient buildings move along in Olympia. But there’s one big roadblock: transportation.
Since transportation accounts for over 40 percent of Washington’s rising carbon emissions, we need action to directly address this sector. Our state’s next major transportation funding package must point the way to a decarbonized future. But the set of proposals that passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee last week falls far short.
First, let’s note the good: The proposals include the most diversified funding stream for a transportation package in memory. Notably, a carbon fee and developer impact fees join a six-cent gas tax increase to make up the bulk of the $15 billion package. While the gas tax is constitutionally restricted to road-related uses, most of the other revenue has no such strings attached. The result is unprecedented potential for investment in sustainable transportation.
But then comes the very bad. Nearly a third of the total funds are earmarked for new roads and highway expansion— when we know more roads equals more carbon emissions. Only 8 percent of the package would fund investments in transit, biking, walking, and rolling—when we know we need to dramatically increase these low-carbon modes in towns and cities throughout the state. It is particularly perverse to use carbon fee revenue to build car infrastructure, instead of fueling a just transition to a clean economy with electrified passenger and freight modes of transport, emphasis on more efficient land use patterns, and renewable energy.
Finally, we have the ugly—the proposal extends a “poison pill” that would drain funding from transit projects in the event that Washington state adopts a low carbon fuel standard. This provision is especially galling given how behind our state is on funding transit. We need to invest in transit and establish a low carbon fuel standard.
This Senate transportation package approach is unacceptable. If we are to avoid climate death by incrementalism, there are some basic standards that a transportation package must meet. First and foremost, all carbon fee revenue should go to investments that move us beyond fossil fuels; road and car infrastructure should be funded only with gas taxes, vehicle mileage fees, or tolls. In addition, the carbon fee should rise over time above the rate of inflation so that it becomes an effective incentive to lower emissions.
We must also be more realistic with the gas tax. This revenue should be reserved for maintaining the road infrastructure we have (which is woefully underfunded), not further expansion that would only worsen our inability to maintain the system. We can use it to fix local roads, prioritize safety, improve culverts for fish passage, mitigate pollution impacts (a lid on I-5, anyone?), and transform existing lanes into HOV lanes. Any urban highway investments must provide transit priority, and all highway spending should integrate trail facilities for alternative mobility. We must stop widening roads—it’s time our leaders learned from many decades of research and experience with induced demand that adding lanes leads to more driving, not faster commutes.
We must say no to holding public transit hostage to anti-environment goals like blocking clean fuels legislation. Furthermore, we should also say no petty bike taxes. The revenue they generate is minuscule, while the disincentive for biking is potentially large, leading us farther from carbon-free transportation.
We may not have many climate deniers left in our state legislature, but that’s not enough anymore. Legislators who don’t want to be “climate delayers” need to come together around our green spending proposals. We can’t let our collective future be compromised for the benefit of special interests that profit from highway expansion and a fossil fuel industry that wants more cars to fill with gasoline. The challenges of realpolitik in Olympia are real, to be sure. But devastation wrought by climate change is more real, and we don’t have time to spare.
Katie Wilson is General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union. Keith Kyle is Executive Director of Seattle Subway. Jesse Piedfort is Chapter Director of Sierra Club Washington State.