By Alex Kuffner
PROVIDENCE — Reports of the death of the Transportation and Climate Initiative appear greatly exaggerated.
In one sign of life, the Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday approved legislation that would make the Ocean State a founding member of the regional program to cut planet-warming emissions from cars and trucks.
The 38-to-7 vote comes a couple of weeks after Connecticut legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont failed to reach an agreement on including a TCI bill in the state budget, prompting calls from opponents that the cap-and-invest program was all but dead.
While there was hope that the Connecticut legislature would take up the multi-state proposal when it reconvened, that special session came and went last week without any action on what environmental advocates say is a crucial step in fighting climate change.
Still, Lamont says he remains committed to the initiative and so do Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee, whose predecessor in office, Gina Raimondo, signed a memorandum of understanding in December with her counterparts in the neighboring states along with the District of Columbia.
“The governor supports efforts under TCI to address climate change and improve public health, and will continue working with Governors Lamont and Baker on this initiative,” said Alana O’Hare, spokeswoman for McKee.
The Senate vote is another signal of support for a plan that would place limits on carbon emissions from gasoline and diesel and require suppliers of the fuels to buy credits to sell them.
Revenues from the sales — an estimated $276 million in the first year, including $20 million for Rhode Island — would be used to fund mass transit, electric-vehicle charging and other clean transportation options. At least 35% of the money must go to lower-income communities disproportionately affected by pollution.
The vote came over the objections of senators from rural districts who say the fees will amount to a gas tax that will be passed down to consumers, and that their constituents will bear the burden because they rely more on their cars to get around.
“Morally, it would be cruel to impose this fuel tax on Rhode Islanders,” said Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican.
She cited an outdated study that put the cost of the program at up to 38 cents per gallon. The author of that study has since told the Connecticut Examiner that his team modeled something different from the current plan, which comes with an estimated cost of up to 9 cents per gallon.
Whether the legislation goes any further is up to the House. Rep. Terri Cortvriend’s bill has been submitted to the Committee on Finance, but a hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet and is unlikely to be put on the calendar before the General Assembly adjourns for the summer. Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, has said she expects a hearing in the fall if the session reconvenes.
Sen. Alana DiMario, the lead sponsor in the Senate, said that TCI will start addressing transportation emissions, but is not the radical program it has been made out to be by its critics.
“It is important to understand that this is a well-studied plan that is well thought-out to slowly turn down the volume on fossil fuels,” DiMario said. “It is not an off switch.”