The Road To Prosperity Isn’t Free

The Road To Prosperity Isn't Free
Surface transportation is essential in rural and metropolitan Washington state, but securing adequate future funding for maintenance and operations is as tricky as mitigating its environmental impacts. Seen here is Highway 124, between Kennewick and Waitsburg. Photo: William Olsen.

One of the concerns most embedded in the consciousness of Washington state’s environmental elites is the perceived planetary threat of carbon emissions. Without legislative approval Governor Jay Inslee is advancing a new Clean Air Rule to clamp down on industrial emitters. He even jetted to Paris with an entourage to pledge fealty on climate action. Meanwhile, Washington voters will be asked to approve a carbon tax this November. Teslas, Priuses and other electric or hybrid vehicles dot the landscape in Greater Seattle. Moving billboards on buses in Seattle urge commuters to be green and take transit.

Yet we’re a nation and state that needs to drive, for business and leisure. Vehicle miles travelled (VMT) have nearly tripled nationally since 1971, and in Washington, more than tripled from 1965 through 2013.

Transportation’s Vital Role In Economic Growth

This underscores the vital role of transportation in economic growth, and the urgency of ongoing maintenance and operations funding that must remain equal to growing system needs. Now also, on the transportation front, there’s unavoidably the priority of controlling carbon emissions in ways which don’t curtail economic growth.

That’s because the transportation sector, not heavy industry, remains far and away Washington’s greatest carbon emitter. Transportation’s share of CO2 and CO2-equivalent emissions has actually grown since 1990. Washington drivers average only 20 miles per gallon (MPG), lagging the current U.S. average by about 20 percent. Meanwhile, the penetration of electric vehicles into the statewide fleet remains well under one percent. The share of all trips on transit in Central Puget Sound is four percent.

With the 6th least carbon-intensive economy out of 50 states in 2013 Washington’s overall energy profile still manages to stack up well, but that’s largely due to an abundance of hydropower for electricity, a resource which isn’t likely to grow further.

CAFE Standards A Game-Changer

Sweeping changes are likely to unfold in the next decade. Many major metro regions including Seattle will continue to grow. More jobs, people and households could boost CO2 emissions. Pushing in the other direction are tougher federal vehicle mileage standards. The scaling-up of auto manufacturers continues, to meet the 2025 requirement of a 54.5 fleet average MPG under U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) guidelines now in place.

In five to ten years there may also arrive a new way of taxing Washington drivers, called a Road User Charge (RUC). The controversial miles-driven RUC tax is intended to compensate fiscally for expected gains in fuel efficiency and a related leveling off or decline in by-the-gallon gasoline sales which are the basis of the current gas tax. The RUC approach is being explored by nine other states, on the West Coast and inland. It also has an important, though perhaps less-intended, function. It’s direct pay-as-you-go model could drive greater efficiency and lower carbon emissions in day-to-day surface transportation.

Improved surface transportation is much on the minds of major Puget Sound employers and business associations, who’ve banded together as Challenge Seattle. To fight crippling traffic and preserve quality of life, they’re pledging a serious, data-driven effort to lower weekday solo commuting by vehicle in the Seattle region. That may be advanced by increased telecommuting, and eventually, advanced ride-sharing utilizing driverless cars.

Plainly, there are a lot of moving parts. So if Washington is really serious about carbon emissions reduction, the approach must build on baseline data.

Emissions by sector in Washington state for the most recent year reported, 2011, show that transportation is far and away the leading source. It’s responsible for 45.6 percent of overall carbon and carbon-equivalent emissions. The data from the Washington Department of Ecology show the sector’s share is up from 42.4 percent in 1990.

Additional data from Ecology, seen below, show that within the Washington transportation sector, the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions by a wide margin is combined onroad fuels, comprised of motor gasoline and diesel fuel.

2008-2011 Greenhouse gas emissions in million metric tons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents for the transportation sector in Washington. Source: Washington Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory 2010-2011, Dec. 2014, Washington Department of Ecology.
2008-2011 Greenhouse gas emissions in million metric tons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents for the transportation sector in Washington. Source: Washington Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory 2010-2011, Dec. 2014, Washington Department of Ecology.

VMT Now Rising Again

As a nation and state we’ve been racking up the miles, and data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show vehicle miles travelled (VMT) on the ascent again, since December 2014.

The moving 12-month total U.S. VMT reached 3.16 trillion in March of this year. From February 2008 until late 2014, it had been stuck in neutral at 3 trillion. That six-year lull was the first real flattening in VMT since 1979 to 1982.

Just months prior to resumption of growth in national VMT, in late 2014, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) issued revised projections for in-state VMT. WSDOT now expects a drop from 51 billion VMT in 2013 to 48 billion by 2040, with the sharpest drop beginning to occur right after CAFE’s 54.5 MPG standard takes hold in 2025.

Progress Slow Toward CAFE 2025 Standard

Progress nationally toward the 2025 CAFE mileage has been been modest so far. Yet Washington lags the pack. Adjusted fuel economy nationwide for light-duty vehicles has grown fairly steadily since 2004 to 24.7 MPG for Mileage Year 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, average vehicle mileage in Washington state is just 20 MPG, according to a 2016 flyer from the state’s RUC study team.

Slow movement on MPG is compounded by what might be called “grade inflation” underlying official vehicle mileage estimates. The 54.5 MPG benchmark is really only a “headline number” and in reality will come out much closer to 40 MPG, writes Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins. That’s because of various exceptions granted under EPA rules, plus varying road conditions and driving habits.

A series of EPA vehicle mileage estimates have turned out to be exaggeratedly high, compared to repeated road tests. Fudging of numbers by German and then French and Japanese automakers has made news in recent months, but American automakers aren’t immune. The Detroit Free-Press reports of official mileage claims too high by one to three MPG on combined city/highway driving for several General Motors large crossover vehicles, from 2016 going back as far as 2007; and the padding of mileage numbers by eight to 10 MPG for two 2013 Ford hybrids.

Stark Gap Between EV Buzz And Adoption

The mismatch between high-mileage hype and actual performance isn’t the only issue. The gap between electric car buzz and adoption is also stark. A WSDOT report issued in April shows cumulative registration in Washington through 2015 of 16,529 plug-in electric vehicles. Total Washington vehicle registrations in 2015 at mid-year were 7,038,858. That puts EVs at .23 percent of the statewide fleet versus the .13 percent nationally indicated by early 2015 data.

A top EPA official told an automotive conference this year the agency expected EVs and hybrid vehicles will rise to two percent and five percent, respectively, of the U.S. market by the time CAFE’s 54.5 MPG standard kicks in.

For Washington state, and the U.S., it seems clear that the talk will outpace the walk for a number of years to come, on greening the transportation sector. Still, no state should allow itself to become the frog who gets boiled to death in a pot of slowly warming water, by rising MPG and its implications for infrastructure funding. That’s been the message from Washington State Transportation Commission Executive Director Reema Griffith, and it carries an important undercurrent on carbon emissions.

Griffith explained last year in a presentation to California transportation officials on Washington’s RUC evaluation, that the gradual increase in vehicle mileage is coming just as CAFE standards suggest, and per-gallon gas taxes won’t generate enough revenue to keep surface transportation in good repair.

MPGs, RUCs, and CO2

To ignore the slow change is to be that frog in the pot, Griffith and WSTC consultants have explained frequently since lawmakers in 2012 green-lighted the RUC inquiry.

It’s a fiscal argument for infrastructure with potentially large implications for drivers, employers, the environment and tax policy in Washington.

If the RUC and its per-mile taxing scheme take hold, the gas tax will have to be eased out of existence, but telecommuting and ride-sharing could rise markedly over time and begin to do what exhortations to ride the bus have not: firmly cap transport’s carbon footprint in Washington.

However, Washington voters in November could approve a carbon tax via Initiative 732.

According to the Association of Washington Business, I-732 would “increase the price of gasoline, diesel, natural gas, electricity and other costs for consumers and business but would attempt to offset the costs by reducing the state sales tax and other measures.” AWB also reported if that I-732 is passed, additional costs per Washington household will be $400 per year at the outset, rising to $1,200.

According to CATO Institute researchers, British Columbia’s carbon tax “has not yielded significant reductions in gasoline purchases” and in Australia, “the carbon tax was quickly removed after the public recoiled against electricity price hikes and a faltering economy.”

A more gradual and focused approach than a carbon tax may suit Washington better, with respect to CO2 emissions reduction in the transportation sector, the one responsible for the lion’s share of the output.

There is going to be a price to pay for greening transportation in Washington. The trick will be getting the policy right.

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