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‘We have to do this together’

Climate mayors ask Congress for swifter transportation action at Senate committee hearing

Honolulu’s new rail line is one of many U.S. transportation projects facing budgetary shortfalls.
AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz

Five U.S. mayors testified to a new climate committee in the U.S. Senate today that transportation projects are helping their cities hit ambitious emissions targets—but in order to achieve their goals, they need more help from the federal government.

Speaking at the first hearing of the Senate’s Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, the mayors touted local advances like expanding electric car fleets, redesigning streets for walking and biking, and boosting bus ridership through networks of dedicated lanes, but cited funding shortfalls and federal regulations that are holding back stronger progress.

“Our ground transportation system needs to adapt with the times and move towards more biking, walking, mass transit, renewable fueled vehicles, and other new mobility options if we are to succeed in meeting our goals,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “We have to do this together, with the state and other stakeholders.”

The mayors—Caldwell, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, St. Paul, Minnesota Mayor Melvin Carter, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, and Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler—are part of a coalition of over 400 “climate mayors” who have set goals for city emission reductions aligned with the Paris climate accord.

Now they’re looking for more federal support to achieve these goals, specifically around transportation, which represents the largest and fastest-growing source of emissions in the country.

“We are doing our part on the local level to address our climate crisis, but without significant federal action our efforts will not be enough,” said Carter.

Wheeler, who shared Portland’s goal to double transit ridership to 25 percent of all trips by 2035, wanted more federal transportation initiatives that would “enable clean, affordable and accessible public transportation and reduce congestion,” he said. “With your leadership, we can flip the narrative from ‘We can’t do that!’ to ‘How could we do that?’”

The mayors also addressed transportation equity issues the climate crisis had exacerbated. “As the mother of four children who suffer from asthma, my family is personally impacted by this crisis, as is our entire community,” said Atlanta mayor Bottoms. “African-Americans are three times more likely than Caucasians to be hospitalized and die of asthma.”

Specific asks for federal legislators included raising the country’s gas tax, changing tolling systems on federal highways to allow for congestion pricing schemes, and boosting regional high-speed rail projects.

Last month, a bill was introduced in the senate by Sen. Jeff Merkley to eliminate the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2040. Last week, Sen. Ed Markey, who co-sponsored the sweeping climate resolution the Green New Deal, introduced the Complete Streets Act, a proposed bill that would require states to use highway funds to build safer, multimodal streets. Honolulu mayor Caldwell encouraged senators to pass the Complete Streets Act as part of his testimony.

The mayors’ emphasis on transportation was timely. Just yesterday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held an oversight hearing on why the U.S. Department of Transportation had not released approved funding for major transit projects. According to the transportation department’s own data, the Federal Transit Administration is holding back almost $850 million for cities and states, which have been forced to wait twice as long to receive federal dollars under the Trump administration.

Consumer-facing transportation policies are also at risk at the federal level, where the loss of an electric vehicle tax credit and a fuel economy rollback would eliminate major incentives to make and buy cleaner cars.

Pittsburgh mayor Peduto compared the hundreds of electric buses on U.S. streets to the half-million electric buses on the ground in China. “We should be making those buses here, they should be employing people from Detroit, and we should be exporting them around the world,” said Peduto. “There is an entire new economy being born that we’re not a part of.”

Many cities are still not taking the dramatic steps necessary to eliminate emissions. A study published in Nature last week cautioned that the world’s governments must immediately stop building fossil-fuel infrastructure, including new roadways, in order to limit warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal outlined in the Paris agreement. While most of the climate mayors are successfully weaning their cities off coal-fired power plants, many continue to fund and build infrastructure that prioritizes cars, including widening highways.

“What we all know is transportation accounts for 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest single contributor to the climate change crisis in the United States,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. “Every single one of you, that’s one of your biggest challenges, transportation.”

Although transportation was cited at the hearing as a critically important issue for these mayors, the topic has been largely absent from presidential candidate platforms—even with two climate mayors, Bill de Blasio and Pete Buttigeig, running for president. Transportation was not mentioned at the first Democratic debates in June.

The hearing also touched on concerns that powerful fossil-fuel-funded interests are influencing climate-related lobbying and electioneering, from the presidential campaigns down to the local level. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island specifically cited the involvement of oil billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch in blocking the passage of a major climate bill in Oregon. Organizations funded by the Kochs have worked to undermine transportation investments in Phoenix, Nashville, and other U.S. cities.

Those efforts might make passing any climate legislation difficult, especially in the Senate, which is Republican-majority and did not endorse the Green New Deal when it was put up for a vote in March. There are no Republicans on the select committee, which consists of ten Democrats.

In his closing remarks, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who chairs the committee, reiterated a statement made by Peduto that focused on how promoting the economic benefit of climate-friendly policies can help overcome political obstacles. “You want to turn coal miner into an environmentalist, put a paycheck in their hand,” Peduto said. The Pittsburgh mayor’s pledge to uphold the Paris agreement after the U.S. backed out led to the formation of the climate mayors, and is the focus of a new documentary.

“It has to be centered on people,” said Sen. Schatz. “It has to be centered on families.”