Regional initiative targets transportation, climate change in underserved rural communities

Photo by Alexius Horatius/Wikimedia Commons

By Lauryn Allen
BU News Service

When Tropical Storm Irene hit Massachusetts in 2011, flooding western Massachusetts and damaging roads and bridges, the state got an early warning about how vulnerable its rural communities were to the effects of climate change.

With reliable public transportation options lacking – as well as limited pedestrian and bicyclist infrastructure – residents in rural communities have no choice but to rely on personal vehicles to get around, according to activists in the region. That contributes to carbon emissions in the state and puts them at a disadvantage compared to urban communities when climate change-related events occur.

A multi-state effort called the Transportation Climate Initiative hopes to improve the climate change resiliency of these communities by reducing emissions from the transportation sector and developing a clean energy economy that will reinvest generated funds into green projects such as the East-West Rail. 

Chris Dempsey, the Director of Transportation for Massachusetts – a coalition of over 90 organizations dedicated to making transportation cleaner, more reliable and more affordable – spoke at a webinar hosted by T4MA about why TCI is necessary to remedy disparities between eastern and western Massachusetts. 

“You know in parts of eastern Massachusetts, if a part of road goes out there, it’s no big deal because there’s probably a parallel road not too far away. When Route 2 goes out, it’s a severe disruption for residents and small businesses in those communities along Route 2,” Dempsey said. “We need to have this critical infrastructure in place, and TCI is meant to support all of these needs.”

Implementing the Transportation Climate Initiative will help fund this critical infrastructure for rural communities through a cap and invest method, according to Dempsey. 

First, the initiative would cap the amount of emissions that can come from the transportation sector. Then the corporations responsible for creating those emissions would be required to purchase allowances under this cap. The revenue generated would then be reinvested into communities across the state. 

At least 35% of funds generated from TCI will be reinvested into communities that are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, according to Dempsey.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, acknowledged the limitations of transportation options in rural Massachusetts and welcomed TCI as a possible solution to these limitations.

“When we don’t have the robust public transportation that many urban areas do, a lot of our residents are going to rely on personal transportation, and that means we typically are going to be driving further distances for work, school, shopping, and services. It leads to higher expenses for our cars, it leads to challenges around isolation,” Hinds said. 

“We really need to have the funding sources for our transportation – our green transportation – and especially targeted kinds of policies that fit for rural transportation,” he added. “I do think that having a funding source like TCI, through a carbon-pricing structure, could be a critical part to achieving this for rural areas.”

Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen A. Theoharides, said TCI represents an “enormous opportunity” to invest in a transportation system that is clean and reliable for all parts of the state. 

“TCI would both establish the first regional limits on pollution from transportation and provide the commonwealth with hundreds of millions of dollars in potential annual proceeds that would enable: clean transit, electric vehicle rebates, bike paths, pedestrian infrastructure and other things that help connectivity in rural communities – including high speed wireless internet, so more people can telework,” Theoharides said. 

By the end of the year, Gov. Charlie Baker – a supporter of the initiative thus far – must decide if Massachusetts will commit to TCI. If the state remains committed to the climate initiative, the program could start as early as 2022. 

The proposal has drawn mixed reviews, particularly in neighboring states, whose participation would be required to make the regional compact work. The Massachusetts House earlier this year passed a transportation bond bill that sought to raise funds through a hike in the gasoline tax, a proposal that has also run into opposition.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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