The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB), an agency charged with setting funding and project priorities for Greater Washington’s transportation sector, voted last month to commit to a new long-range plan that better addresses climate change.
The agency will proceed with the adoption of its current proposal, titled “Visualize 2045,” by spring next year, but they also voted to start over and adopt a new vision for the region’s transportation system by 2024.
While many board members were already pushing for a plan that made stronger commitments to mitigate climate change, there was opposition from the outer suburbs, TPB staff officials, and some state and local DOTs. This made the vote on June 16 even more dramatic, with the TPB voting 26 to 4 to support a follow-on climate-friendly plan. This followed a closer vote of 16 to 13 to remove the contested 495/270 toll lane expansion from the regional plan, with several TPB members citing climate change as a factor.
Transportation, the region’s main driver of climate change
Transportation is the region’s largest source of climate pollution, with most of it from cars, SUVs and pickup trucks. How much our transportation activities pollute is tied both to how much we drive and how clean our cars are. The region has goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.
All metropolitan areas are required to prepare a long-range transportation plan with a 20-year minimum horizon, and update the plan every four years. The plan sets policy priorities for spending government funding on transit, road, rail and trail projects at the regional level.
Visualize 2045 is the region’s plan and allocates $290 billion in anticipated funding through 2045. With such a large scope and influence on how we travel, the plan’s vision and mix of projects has a significant impact on our climate emissions.
The previous Visualize 2045 plan adopted in 2018 would only reduce its GHG emissions by 23% by 2045. TPB Director Kanti Srikanth said in April that the currently proposed Visualize 2045 update would likewise fail to sufficiently cut climate pollution. The TPB is conducting a separate climate change study, looking at how to achieve major cuts in emissions; however, most of the study results will not be ready until the end of this year.
A public outcry on climate
The vote to develop a new plan by 2024 that reduces greenhouse gas emissions follows months of advocacy by smart growth and conservation organizations, and pressure from local elected officials to act.
Public comments on the draft Visualize 2045 list of projects overwhelmingly objected to its lack of commitment to regional climate policies and continuation of massive road and highway expansions. Of the 229 public comments received during the April 2021 comment period, about 180 asked TPB to prioritize climate and sustainable transportation investments and reject proposed massive highway expansions.
In addition, TPB’s Voices of the Region survey conducted for the plan, found that 84% of the region’s residents want elected officials to consider the impacts of climate change when planning transportation.
Why couldn’t TPB fix the current plan?
Aside from removing specific projects, the TPB board had few options to significantly change the plan at this point in the process given a hard federal deadline for plan approval in 2022 and lengthy technical analysis required before then. But several members had worked to find constructive ways to improve Visualize 2045 since the beginning.
Mayor David Snyder of Falls Church, Virginia, crafted a resolution in December 2020 for TPB to “require its member agencies to prioritize investments on projects, programs, and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prioritize the aspirational strategies, and achieve COG’s land use and equity goals…” Agencies would have to answer additional questions on how their projects supported regional policies to promote non-automobile travel modes, reduce automobile vehicle miles traveled and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The board approved the resolution by a vote of 22 to 0 with 8 abstentions.
However, the batch of project submissions received in March 2020 still looked largely the same as the previous Visualize 2045 plan adopted in 2018, which fell far short of the climate goals adopted by TPB for cutting climate pollution in half by 2030 and mostly eliminating it by 2050. And by the end of the submission process, only 14% of the projects claiming they would contribute to significant regional greenhouse gas cuts had provided an explanation, despite the required questions in the submittal form, according to a review by WMATA staff TPB members.
As a result, TPB Chair, DC Council Member Charles Allen, directed TPB staff to request a schedule extension from the federal government, giving the board time to have more findings from TPB’s climate change study before approving a slate of projects at the June 2021 meeting. Given the new direction of the US Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg to prioritize climate change, the board hoped their federal partners would allow some flexibility under the circumstances.
At the same time, TPB board member and Montgomery County Council Member Evan Glass introduced a resolution to require that TPB model a climate-friendly alternative plan. The intention was to give the board an apples-to-apples comparison of the proposed project list with an alternative project list and supportive land use and transportation policies more consistent with regional climate and equity goals.
In the end, the federal government rejected the schedule extension request, and TPB staff reported that they would not be able to model a climate-friendly alternative scenario under its current work plan. TPB board member Mayor Snyder circulated an alternative resolution, with support from other board members, to broker a compromise and conduct an early update of the plan to address climate change when the results of TPB’s climate change study would be ready.
According to the adopted resolution, the new “do-over” Visualize 2045 plan must consider “multiple build scenarios and an analysis of each scenario’s impact on the region’s adopted goals and targets, including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” The “build” scenario is the mix of projects, so the plan update will test multiple scenarios: the business-as-usual project list, as well as climate-friendly scenarios – the apples-to-apples comparison missing from the current Visualize 2045. Another significant provision is that the next update must be based on “zero-based budgeting,” where all projects, including those already in the current plan, must be resubmitted for consideration rather than simply being carried over.
Planning process does not connect vision with action
The real issue is that the Visualize 2045 process does not show member agencies what’s needed to address big issues or build consensus on concrete policy action. Much of it involves stapling together existing projects already in the pipeline and begins long before TPB reaches out to the public.
Despite the new regional climate action plan underway and huge questions on the future of commuting and racial equity in transportation, TPB’s work plan for this year largely treated Visualize 2045 as a routine update. The planning process would model and adopt projects submitted by member agencies, solicit public comments, the final report would include aspirational statements, and it would all meet a federal deadline in 2022. It’s a lot of hard work by TPB’s skilled staff, but the process fails to connect major local actions and regional goals.
In addition, while TPB decided to do a detailed climate change study, the results would be presented at the end of the Visualize 2045 process, too late to influence it.
New leadership and commitment
The TPB now has a strong majority of local officials demonstrating leadership on climate action and making the region more equitable and livable. In addition, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has committed to addressing climate change and helped broker the deal. Given the partisan stalemate on climate action in Congress, including infrastructure proposals, local climate action is critical.
Outer jurisdictions and many DOT staff still think that electric cars will solve climate change and allow them to continue to build highways without limit. The Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is also pushing to hold a second TPB vote on the MD toll lanes. However, the June votes on climate action and the MD toll lanes show a majority of local officials know we have to pursue the more effective land use, travel demand management, and transit-based solutions as well as electrification.
The real work begins now, ensuring this year’s TPB climate study provides useful data, and that the plan update starting in 2022 sets strong and equitable greenhouse gas reduction goals and measures.