OTF Voices

Wendy Philleo column: Let's transform Virginia's transportation system. Here's how.

By Wendy Philleo

Richmond Times Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia

As lawmakers continue to focus on a bipartisan infrastructure bill in Washington, there is a massive opportunity before us in Virginia — with funding at the ready — to revitalize our transportation system. It would bring millions in economic investment to the commonwealth and cleaner air for our communities, all while fighting climate change.

What is this opportunity? The Transportation and Climate Initiative — a collaboration of 13 Eastern Seaboard states, along with the District of Columbia, working together on a regional strategy to lower transportation-related pollution and invest in a cleaner, more equitable transportation system.

TCI provides funding to help states pay for much-needed transportation improvements that benefit communities, expand electric mobility options and reduce harmful carbon emissions.

Here’s how it works: TCI would establish a regional cap-and-invest system for transportation emissions. The program requires that gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers (not gas stations) purchase “allowances” for the emissions content of the fuel they sell in the commonwealth.

If TCI sounds familiar, that’s because Virginia already is part of a similar, successful program that addresses emissions from the power sector: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. TCI essentially is RGGI for the transportation sector.

RGGI already has generated $43 million for Virginia, a number that is expected to grow to at least $109 million in this year alone. These funds will help Virginia invest in energy-efficiency projects and coastal resiliency measures across the commonwealth.

TCI has the potential to be even more impactful: It’s expected to bring in more than $250 million in its first year and $3 billion over 10 years for Virginia alone. Virginia can invest these funds into equitable transportation projects that benefit communities statewide.

However, powerful forces are working against Virginia’s participation in the program, pushing misinformation campaigns about TCI because it is in their best interest to keep Virginians tethered to fossil fuels.

A linchpin of this campaign by the fossil fuel industry is its claim that TCI will raise gas prices by 50 cents or more. Yet TCI was specifically structured to not let gas prices skyrocket. The maximum price increase that we might see would be 9 cents — well within the regular price fluctuations Virginians already experience on a daily basis.

Opponents also are calling TCI a gas tax. It’s not. It’s a fee on corporate polluters — gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers. There is no requirement that suppliers pass along this fee to the public, but even if that happened, the benefits to Virginians far outweigh the costs (pennies on the gallon). This funding source would help communities across Virginia transition from gas-powered cars to electric, expand public transit and make us less reliant on foreign oil.

Opponents also claim that TCI will cause fuel shortages, hurting small businesses. The reality is that TCI is intentionally designed to prevent fuel shortages. The longer we are tethered to gas-powered vehicles, the more we are at the mercy of big international oil and gas companies, gasoline shortages, dangerous pipelines, and the volatility of price and supply that come with a dependence on imported fossil fuels.

If Virginia implements the TCI program, it will bring myriad economic benefits. Expanding public transit and building out Virginia’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure will create and support new jobs, decrease expenditures for Virginia’s families and put dollars back into the local economy.

It also will improve Virginians’ public health and quality of life. In addition to reduced air pollution, benefits could include faster commutes, improved bike lanes, more sidewalks, more affordable electric vehicles and expanded free-fare public transit.

By implementing TCI, Virginia can create more affordable and equitable transportation options for all Virginians. We can — and should — use TCI to significantly invest in communities that lack sufficient transportation options, and that have historically and unjustly borne the disproportionate burden of transportation pollution.

TCI will steer Virginia in the right direction through bold climate action and sound policymaking. State leaders should take advantage of this opportunity to transform our transportation system and help to build a prosperous clean energy economy in Virginia.

Wendy Philleo is the executive director of Generation180, a Virginia-based national nonprofit working to inspire and equip individuals to take action on clean energy. Contact her at: [email protected]

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