House Climate Crisis Select Committee Considers Transportation Priorities

House Climate Crisis Select Committee Considers Transportation Priorities

July 02, 2021  | Brianne Eby

On June 30, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held a hearing, “Transportation Investments for Solving the Climate Crisis.” Witnesses included:

  • Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (testimony here)
  • Bill Van Amburg, Executive Vice President of CALSTART (testimony here)
  • Robert Bryce, Visiting Fellow of The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (testimony here)
  • Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation for America (testimony here)

Committee Chair Kathy Castor (D-FL) kicked off the hearing by noting the irony that transportation is both vulnerable to climate change while also serving as the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Discussions throughout likewise emphasized both the efforts needed to mitigate transportation emissions as well as to adapt to climate change’s existing effects on transportation systems through resilience standards.

Vehicle electrification

The majority of the discussion throughout the hearing emphasized vehicle electrification. Bill Van Amberg of the clean transportation technology industry consortium CALSTART received questions about the market trends for electric vehicle adoption. He indicated that different incentives are needed for commercial vs. passenger vehicle market settings. Because commercial fleet purchases tend to factor in the total cost of ownership, the shift toward electric heavy-duty vehicles has come more easily to commercial sectors (Van Amberg also mentioned other factors, like a high degree of technology transfer from light- to heavy-duty vehicles). On the other hand, tools like feebates are useful in a passenger context, where range anxiety often prevents people from purchasing electric vehicles.

Several Republican representatives highlighted issues with drawing materials used to manufacture electric vehicles from international sources with problematic records on human rights and governance issues. In particular, Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) cited increases in the trade deficit with China and spending for defense within China, asking Robert Bryce what that means for broader trade between the two countries. Bryce responded that there are limits on mining and energy transitions and suggested that oil will be necessary for years to come. Similarly, Rep. Miller (R-WV) asked Robert Bryce about the mineral intensity of electric vehicles, which he said was roughly six times that of internal combustion vehicles. 

Considerations beyond electrification

Beth Osborne’s testimony emphasized that climate efforts cannot be limited to reducing emissions only via the electrification of vehicles, but that there must also be policy mechanisms in place to encourage shorter trips and allow for less driving overall. Rep. Castor asked her about the significance of “fix it first” and “complete streets” policies.

With respect to complete streets, Osborne defined the concept as designing roadways to accommodate everyone (which can include automobile drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users of all ages and abilities) who is allowed to use the space. She pointed to drastic increases in roadway fatalities in 2020 due to automotive speeding as one example of how current street designs do not serve roadway users. With respect to fix it first, Osborne took the opportunity to correct a previous statement by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), who said that “there’s no funding for new roads and there’s a huge amount of funding for mass transit [in the INVEST in America Act]”. Osborne indicated that the bill rather requires a plan for maintaining new infrastructure before it is built and that project sponsors show demonstrated progress on existing infrastructure maintenance backlogs before receiving funding for new roadway infrastructure. She stated that this approach “meets people’s needs instead of pushing them away from the things they need by extending travel [through new highway construction]”. This last point was also made by Rep. Graves in his opening remarks, when he suggested that electrification is the long-term strategy, but other approaches like collecting data on where trips start and end to inform road investments that actually serve individuals’ needs are also important strategies to promote the efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars.

Transportation infrastructure resilience arose in the context of how flooding affects transportation systems. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), whose district in north central Colorado has experienced several major flooding events in recent years, asked Anderson Kelliher about the applicability to scale Minnesota’s Statewide Extreme Flood Analysis tool. She indicated that the tool will be built into her state’s asset management system, and is an important component of maintaining existing infrastructure. In reference to the recent heatwave in the Pacific northwest, which caused streetcar cables to melt in Portland, Osborne also discussed a need to better plan for severe weather events by incorporating resilience design strategies into infrastructure investments.

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