Critics question the influx of transport funding and its effect on emissions
The concerns that climate and transit activists are now raising about the state’s transportation funding plans center on a veritable alphabet of acronyms and abbreviations.
On Thursday, a state Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) will vote on whether to recommend that the state planning board (the state-designated metropolitan planning agency, or MPO) make changes the State’s long-term transport financing plans (STIP). The State Department of Transportation (often referred to as RIDOT, pronounced RYE-dot) asked the TAC to recommend changes to STIP to account for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding through the Federal Transportation Windfall of the State. last year (sometimes called IIJA, sometimes BIL).
Whatever you call it, federal law will bring billions to Rhode Island – $500 million in the first five years alone for repair projects, not to mention money to build new things. TAC and DFO would have to approve spending changes, which would then become state policy. (There will be no more acronyms.)
Climate and transit advocacy groups including the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, Grow Smart RI and the Providence Streets Coalition have raised concerns about the plan. They say it is being advanced in a way that will limit public debate. And they have a lot to discuss.
“It feels like they’re trying to push this through,” said Mal Skowron of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.
Transportation is the source of the gases that warm the climate in Rhode Island. Critics like John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI and a member of the panel who will vote on the changes on Thursday, said the plan would further support the freeway’s expansion.
“It’s really more business as usual,” Flaherty said.
He didn’t mean that as a compliment.
The state Department of Transportation, meanwhile, says the climate groups are fundamentally getting the facts wrong.
“None of the projects funded by this act are ‘freeway expansion,'” spokesman Charles St. Martin said.
These are all, St. Martin said, projects that would repair, rehabilitate and rebuild failing bridges and crumbling roads, projects “designed to keep Rhode Islanders safe.”
Critics have pointed to projects such as the proposed Route 95 and Route 4 interchange, which would involve the construction of new ramps. St. Martin said the state would not use funding from last year’s federal transportation law for the project. Instead, its inclusion in Department of Transportation plans serves as a placeholder for the state to try to secure subsidies for it.
“One of the biggest benefits of this project will be to provide a faster way for large utility vehicles to get to Quonset as they carry equipment to help build the wind farm which will be a major source of clean energy,” said St. Martin. “It will also reduce congestion and air pollution on local roads by eliminating the need for vehicles to idle at traffic lights.”
The 487-page document that outlines the Department of Transport’s plans does not include the word “climate.”
But, St. Martin said, good roads reduce emissions by giving people a faster, safer way to get where they’re going. (Environmental groups are skeptical(to say the least.) St. Martin also said the Department of Transportation isn’t trying to limit public comment, as critics have said. He is pushing the proposal forward in a way that must be in accordance with the law, he said.
Critics of the Department of Transportation, however, point west for a better way of doing business: The Colorado Transportation Commission recently passed a rule requiring state planning agencies to consider the effect of the proposed projects and offset them in certain cases. This could divert billions of dollars from highway expansion to greener projects.
“That’s what we absolutely have to do,” said Liza Burkin of the Providence Streets Coalition.
Carson, the state representative behind Act on Climate, also thinks the Colorado model would be the right way to go.
The law she championed – she called it “just the greatest achievement of my career” – has mandates, not just goals: The state must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% 1990 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050.
Will the proposed changes to state transportation funding currently underway help or hinder efforts to begin to achieve these goals? Carson isn’t sure, but her concern is that the state doesn’t know either.
“We don’t know the answer to that question,” Carson said. “We know that if you build roads, people will come.”