Rossi's Transportation Plan

The connection between congestion and carbon.

I wrote a letter to the editor that ran in the paper over the weekend. Here’s the more complete version…

dino rossiThe road to global warming is paved with good intentions. Consider the perennial plan to fix congestion by building more highways. Add new lanes, traffic will flow freely, and cars will pollute less. Or so the thinking goes.

Gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi is the latest pol to trot out this old chestnut. He claims that his road-centric transportation plan (Clark’s take on it here) will be good for the climate (see “Gregoire, Rossi battle for eco-credentials” in the P-I). Rossi is wrong, but believing that we can pave our way out of pollution has been a bipartisan mistake. Well-meaning folks on both sides of the aisle made the same error during the contentious Proposition 1 debate last year.

There’s a grain of truth in the claim: most vehicles (some hybrids excluded) are less efficient in stop-and-go traffic. But over the long haul, building more lanes of highway, to carry ever-increasing volumes of traffic, is a recipe for more climate-warming emissions, not less. Sightline has estimated that adding a single extra mile of highway lane in a congested urban area will increase carbon-dioxide emissions by about 100,000 tons over 50 years. And that’s after taking congestion relief into account.

In Washington, transportation is the big enchilada when it comes to climate pollution. Nearly half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector; and most of that comes from our cars and trucks. In truth, transportation and climate change are so closely linked that our transportation solutions need to be climate solutions too. And vice-versa.

Of course, climate isn’t our only transportation challenge. But when drivers can scarcely afford to fill up the tank, it’s hard to see how spending billions of dollars for bigger roads is any sort of solution. Wider roads may not even relieve congestion: not only does construction cause delays in the short term, but new lanes can fill more quickly than planners expect. Too often, the result isn’t relief for frustrated drivers; it’s just more drivers.

There is a way for Rossi to burnish his reputation as a climate-defender while he tunes up his transportation plan. He can join Republican and Democratic governors from seven western states, including Governor Gregoire, in supporting an economy-wide cap on carbon pollution. He’d be in good company, too: all three major-party presidential candidates call for a cap, as do a growing number of businesses and churches, cities and neighborhoods.

A responsible climate plan puts first things first: it sets firm and declining limits on all the major sources of greenhouse gases, including transportation. Smart transportation investments—hybrid cars, hot lanes, better buses, and bike lanes—can help with both congestion and the climate. But the single best solution to easing transportation emissions isn’t any of these things: it’s putting a cap on carbon. 

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  1. James says:

    Eric, ignoring roads and hoping that they go away in not really a solution either. Light rail and bus systems will never be able to achieve 100% penetration, so a comprehensive approach is required. The best we can hope for, in terms of cars/roads, is that plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles will become the norm. Along with that, we should be pushing for more wind, solar and nuclear in our power grid so that the recharging of these vehicles is not coming from coal.Carbon is a HUGE problem. But ignoring roads and congestion, in the hope that this will force people into mass transit, is a lousy plan.If we want to be successful in addressing carbon emmissions, we cannot kill our economy in the process. When people are struggling financially, environmental issues become a much lower priority.Just my opinion.

  2. Eric de Place says:

    James, I don’t want to ignore roads, I just don’t think we need to pave over any more of Puget Sound when there are many opportunities to use our existing (and expensive to maintain) infrastructure more efficiently. System-wide congestion pricing, for instance, can pretty well alleviate regional congestion even while it reduced on-road ghgs by an estimated 30%. Also, it’s not a question of “forcing” people into transit; it’s a question of whether we’ll continue to force people into SOV driving, as our current system does.

  3. Barry says:

    Eric is right. Our roads are crammed with inefficient, carbon-spewing wasteful driving choices. We have far more roads than we need in ANY conceivable, sustainable economy or society.Spending billions more on roads at this point is economic suicide. We need all our infrastructure dollars now to be going towards projects that will allow us to even HAVE an advanced economy in a few decades.The thing almost everyone who lives in the human-bubble of city life fails to recognize is that climate change effects are already here. Major ecosystems are in collapse. There are 50 more years of worse coming at us from the CO2 we already put in the air and oceans. If you think that is hyperbole, here are three NW examples:1) Ocean acidification caused by our CO2. It wasn’t even known to humanity as a problem until 4 years ago. The best modelling and predictions were that acidic waters at the level that are deadly to many forms of ocean life would not show up here for 50 years. Oops. Recent tests show they are already here in parts of NW…50 years early on a prediction only 3 years old. 2) Oxygen-less dead zones. For years dead zones have been appearing off the oregon coast in the summer. Nearly every year they get bigger and most recently stretched from california into washington. These zones are “killing marine life at every level from plankton to salmon, seals and sea birds.” The bottom as seen on videos from subs is a “marine graveyard” of floating corpses for hour after hour after hour. These dead zones are expanding all over the world and the one in pacific off south america is now 5,000 miles long. The cause is change in the wind patterns, current patterns and ocean temps—all brought on by climate change. 3) Pine forest collapse in BC and beyond. Climate change has allowed natural predator beetles to wipe out 130,000 km2 of forest. So great is the die off that one of the largest carbon sinks on earth, Canada’s massive forests, is now predicted to become a carbon emitter soon: “by 2020 the beetle outbreak alone will have released 270 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s exactly the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that Canada is committed to reducing by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol.” Nobody even knows what to re-plant because nobody knows what the climate will be like over the lifespan of the next generation of trees.Climate change is happening at a rapidly non-linear rate from the arctic to the amazon. “Wait and see” = “wait and starve”. If anyone thinks we have the luxury to spend our dollars and efforts on more roads, i suggest they spend a bit more time learning about the health of the global ecosystems our civilization is resting upon.We have a few years left to turn this climate disaster around. Individuals and society need to shift their focus to cutting their carbon emissions now. We don’t need more deck chairs on the Titanic.

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