How U.S. Congress Can Get Cities Moving

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Originally published on the NRDC Expert Blog.
By  Sarah Kline, Federal Transportation Consultant to NRDC.

The Biden administration has set an ambitious climate goal for America: a 50 percent decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. To reach this goal, changing the way we move must be key since transportation is the largest contributor of GHGs in the United States.

Fortunately, cities are already leading the way. My colleagues and I have been working since 2018 with 25 cities as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge. Along with local partners, the cities have made significant strides in adopting climate-friendly transportation policies to encourage people to bike, walk, or use public transit instead of driving.

Cities are the natural leaders as they oversee land use, including the location of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, and local infrastructure, like streets and sidewalks, and may also provide transit service. But cities cannot tackle the climate crisis alone. The federal government has the tools to support bottom-up climate action and bring solutions to the national scale.

Here are two ways the federal government can help cities accelerate reductions in transportation emissions. In a future installment, I’ll discuss how the federal government can empower more local climate action.

1. Level up federal transit funding to match federal highway funding.

Bus Lanes. Photo by Caroline Yang for NRDC.

One of the most effective ways of reducing emissions is increasing transit use so that more people can get to jobs, schools, health care, and other places without driving. Many of the Climate Challenge cities have taken bold steps. St. Petersburg, Florida, is building the first bus rapid transit (BRT) line in the Tampa Bay Area, which will provide service between downtown and the beach. Charlotte, North Carolina, plans to build a 26-mile Silver Line that links the airport to the region’s light rail system, connecting communities of color to Charlotte’s uptown, thousands of jobs, and many other essential destinations. San Antonio voters passed a ballot measure in 2020 to dedicate a portion of an existing sales tax to expanding transit. Likewise, Cincinnati voters replaced a portion of the city’s earnings tax with a 0.8% increase to the county’s sales tax to fund the Southern Ohio Regional Transit Agency (SORTA) and infrastructure projects. The success of these and other ballot measures demonstrate the growing demand across the country for clean transportation options.

But cities are still limited in what they can deliver, due to the overall low level of funding. They’re forced to build out transit systems at a snail’s pace, one line at a time, with cobbled-together funds, meaning it can take decades to deliver the transit network that residents want. The federal transportation program has exacerbated this problem: For every $4 spent on roads and highways, just $1 has been spent on transit. It’s time for the federal program to level up investments in transit to match highways. That way, cities can realize transit projects and reap the benefits of greener transportation that much sooner.

2. Fund the transition to electric vehicles.

Increasing the use of zero-emission vehicles is one of the most effective tools for cutting emissions. Several cities, including St. LouisChicagoBoston, and Indianapolis, have adopted  or are exploring EV readiness ordinances to ensure that new homes and buildings are prepared for an EV future.

Orlando, Florida, installed 100 electric chargers, pivoted its municipal light-duty fleet to EVs, and attracted federal funding for 140 EV buses. The city’s utility also hired an EV specialist to oversee incentives for EV adoption programs.

Philadelphia introduced 25 electric buses and is working on a clean fleet plan, while Pittsburgh debuted its first two electric buses and partnered with its electric utility to install two chargers. Charlotte added its first five battery electric buses at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which will result in an annual decrease of about 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel, saving an estimated $90,000 each year. Los Angeles is in the process of adding 155 electric buses to its fleet.

Though cities are transitioning to electrification, it comes at a price. Purchasing an electric bus — not to mention installing the charging infrastructure — costs more than a diesel bus. Although these upfront costs are recouped over time through lower operating expenses, they can be a burden for strapped local governments. The only federal grant program focused on low- and no-emission bus purchases represents less than half of one percent of the federal transportation programTo accelerate fleet conversions, a significant increase in federal grants for EVs and charging infrastructure is needed, such as the $174 billion proposed by the Biden administration in the American Jobs Plan.

Image by Electrify America.

The Time Is Now

The U.S. Senate just passed a major Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, and pivoted to an even bigger budget reconciliation package. There is a lot of work to do over the next month, especially with current transportation law expiring on September 30th. These bills should be a one-two punch that helps knock the funding shortfalls in transit and electrification and give cities the tools they need to make immediate and lasting progress in reducing transportation emissions.

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