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Getting Back on Track

Transportation policies in every state could save money and reduce carbon emissions by making smarter decisions with state funds.

In Getting Back on Track: Climate Change and State Transportation Policy, Smart Growth American and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that current transportation policies in almost all 50 states either fail to curb carbon emission rates or, in some cases, actually increase emissions. This contradiction between state policies and broader efforts to reduce carbon emissions means not only that many states are missing opportunities to protect clean air; it means they are missing economic opportunities as well.

“Transportation makes up an enormous proportion of our national economy and our environmental impact,” said Governor Parris Glendenning, President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute. “It must be front and center as we think about how to get the most out of our public investments. The states that rose to the top in this report, California, Maryland and New Jersey, are there because they are meeting the challenge to innovate.”

Transportation is the country’s second-largest and second-fastest growing source of carbon pollution (after electricity generation), yet transportation policies in most states fail to acknowledge their role this problem. Smarter transportation policy could save money, create jobs and help rebuild the economy while also curbing emissions.

“State departments of transportation are working at odds with carbon reduction efforts, and that means states are missing out environmentally AND economically,” said Neha Bhatt, deputy policy director for Smart Growth America. “We can get a better transportation system and reduce carbon emissions at the same time, but we have to change state and federal transportation policies to do that.”

According to the findings in the new report, fewer than half of states have complete streets laws or policies in place, and only 15 states provide incentives for clean transportation commuting. 15 states have implemented smart growth policies or policies that curb sprawl, but only seven states incentivize transit-oriented development. If more states adopted these kinds of policies, they could not only reduce emission rates but attract more businesses and create more jobs, too.

“Most states’ transportation departments seem to be ignoring their important role in stopping climate change,” said Colin Peppard, deputy director of Federal Transportation Policy at NRDC. “If states considered all their transportation policy options, they could tap into tremendous potential to reduce carbon emissions, even with limited resources.”

In addition, changes to federal policy could also encourage states to use their transportation money more effectively, and without action at both the state and the federal levels, the United States will almost certainly fail to meet current carbon reduction goals. The overdue authorization of a federal transportation bill will be a key moment for leadership from both Congress and the Obama Administration to reduce carbon emissions and continue to rebuild our economy.