Virginia takes steps to lower carbon pollution from transportation

High driving rates in Virginia, like on this busy stretch of Interstate 95 in Richmond, take a significant toll on people’s health and the environment. (© SeanPavonePhoto)

In recent months, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s administration has taken some positive steps to put the Commonwealth on a path to lowering its greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector — the state’s largest source of carbon pollution.

In September, Northam announced Virginia would join the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a consortium currently comprised of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. According to Northam’s announcement, TCI is “a forum for exchanging ideas, sharing best management practices, and collaborating on initiatives to reduce transportation’s carbon footprint.”

Many of the same states are also part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which Virginia is also preparing to join. That initiative focuses on lowering carbon emissions from electricity generation.

Virginia is the first state in SELC’s region to join TCI,” said Trip Pollard, senior attorney and head of SELC’s Land and Community Program. “This move is an important step. Although it doesn’t actually commit the state to any particular measures or amount of pollution reduction, it is a clear indication of a desire to address greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.”

In addition, Virginia recently issued a notice of intent to award a contract to develop a statewide public electric vehicle-charging network. The $14 million contract represents about 15 percent of the $93.6 million the state will receive under a settlement to mitigate environmental damage from Volkswagen diesel engines that had been designed to cheat emissions testing.

The settlement allows up to 15 percent of the funds to be used for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. SELC has urged states to commit the full 15 percent, and Virginia is the first state to dedicate the full-allowed allotment to electric vehicle charging networks.

In another recent development, the Northam administration unveiled a new state energy plan last week that places greater emphasis on cleaner vehicles than previous plans. Among the transportation recommendations, the plan calls for adoption of low-emission and zero-emission vehicle programs.

The funding for an electric vehicle charging network and the clean vehicle recommendations in the state energy plan are significant, positive steps,” said Pollard. “However, Virginia’s implementation of the energy plan recommendations and decisions about how to spend the rest of the Volkswagen settlement funds will provide even more important indications of how serious the Northam administration is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.”

Much more will be needed to make significant progress in cutting the tremendous amount of transportation emissions.  “Overall, Virginia is way behind the curve compared to many other states. If you’re really serious about cutting tailpipe pollution, you need to be doing much more to advance cleaner forms of transportation — such as rail and transit – and to promote cleaner vehicles.”

In addition, the state should look more closely at the road projects it funds, which often increase driving and pollution.

“Virginia is not tackling that yet,” Pollard said. “There’s been little analysis of the impact of state transportation plans and projects on greenhouse gas pollution.”

Still, the decisions to join TCI, fund an electric vehicle charging network, and craft a state energy plan with a greater emphasis on electric vehicles are important.

This trio of steps show a willingness to tackle the greenhouse gases from transportation," said Pollard, “but it remains to be seen how much will be done. So far, Virginia has mainly signaled that we’d like to do more.”

These issues are critical. “A lot of the steps Virginia needs to take to reduce the environmental impacts of transportation aren’t just about curbing greenhouse gases,” Pollard said. “They also would reduce particulate pollution, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants, making our air healthier and our water cleaner.”

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