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