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A good first step – Rhode Island joins with other states to reduce transportation climate emissions

“Too many communities across Rhode Island suffer from hazardous levels of air pollution and lack access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable transportation options. TCI is an important tool to deliver the cleaner air and better transportation options Rhode Islanders deserve…”



The Governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the Mayor of the District of Columbia, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Monday, committing to the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) Program a multijurisdictional effort that seeks “substantial reductions in motor vehicle pollution” and will allow Rhode Island to “invest almost $200 million between 2023 and 2032 in modernizing transportation, improving public health, addressing environmental inequities in low-income communities, and protecting residents from the impacts of climate change.”

In a press release the Raimondo Administration says that “[t]ransportation is responsible for 38 percent of ​greenhouse emissions in Rhode Island. Exposure to air pollution exacerbates lung and heart ailments, causes asthma attacks, and increases the risk of a stroke and other serious health conditions. Prolonged exposure to air pollution may make it more difficult to recover from diseases like COVID-19, according to a recent Harvard School of Public Health report. In Rhode Island, 16.5 percent of adults and 14.3 percent of children will be diagnosed with asthma in their lifetime versus national rates of 14.5 percent for adults and 11.4 percent for children, according to 2018 statistics for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Essentially a tax on carbon, TCI will work by requiring gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers to purchase emission “allowances” for the pollution caused by the fuels they sell in participating states. The total number of allowances would decline each year, resulting in less transportation pollution. Each participating jurisdiction will independently decide how to invest program proceeds to achieve the goals of the MOU.

According to the Raimondo Administration, example investments may include “improving existing public transit systems; developing new bus routes in suburban and rural communities; developing bus rapid transit; electrifying buses, rail, and state fleets; developing highway preservation to reduce congestion; expanding safe bike lanes, bike paths, walking trails, and sidewalks; expanding bike-share programs; improving high speed wireless internet in rural and low-income areas; creating rebates for electric and low-emission vehicles; developing charging infrastructure; developing interstate electric vehicle charging corridors; and creating incentives for continued telecommuting.”

The TCI Program MOU, signed by Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser has earned praise from environmental groups across New England.

Acadia Center applauds Governor Raimondo for her leadership on TCI,” writes Acadia Center Rhode Island Director Hank Webster. “Too many communities across Rhode Island suffer from hazardous levels of air pollution and lack access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable transportation options. TCI is an important tool to deliver the cleaner air and better transportation options Rhode Islanders deserve, like those identified in the state’s Transit Master Plan, Bicycle Mobility Plan, and forthcoming Mobility Innovation Working Group recommendations.”

Other environmental groups voiced support for the plan, such as NECEC, Save The Bay, Climate Action RI and Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Under the plan, Rhode Island will expects “at least a 26 percent reduction in carbon emissions from transportation from 2022 to 2032 and is anticipated to generate around $20 million annually.” Money from these funds will be re-invested “in equitable and cleaner transportation options, serving as a catalyst for infrastructure, transit and green energy development through the next decade and beyond. TCI-P also will benefit public health by reducing avoidable deaths and respiratory and other illnesses caused by exposure to air pollution.”

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“Joining the Transportation and Climate Initiative is an investment in Rhode Islanders,” said Governor Raimondo. “This first-of-its-kind program will provide $20 million annually for public transit, safe streets for bikers and pedestrians, and other green projects. Most importantly, it will provide much needed relief for the urban communities who suffer lifelong health problems as a result of dirty air. I look forward to working with the Rhode Island General Assembly to launch this program and protect the health of Rhode Islanders.”

There is still much work to be done as to how exactly the plan will be implemented. Teamsters Local 251 was part of the working group to help create TCI. “Our recommendations and support for this initiative rely heavily on job protections, job training and protections against bad corporate actors,” say the Teamsters in a statement on Facebook. “Fighting climate change and improving the lives of working families are all part of a sustainable future for all.”

The Teamsters have four labor-centered recommendations concerning TCI.

  • The innovation and efficiency of renewable energy sources needs to be combined with good family-supporting jobs and fair play in vendor contract bidding.
  • Local and regional manufacturers who treat their employees fairly should be cornerstone of encouraging growth of a new energy sector.
  • Partnership with fleet transportation providers who can provide stability in this vision must be based on fair and responsible criteria.
  • Transition of current jobs and creation of new jobs need to be supported with proven job training programs, while giving preference of hiring to existing workers and local hiring to provide opportunities to disadvantaged communities.

UpriseRI reached out to Mal Skowron at the Green Energy Consumers Alliance to ask what the process will look like of getting legislation crafted and what the role of environmental and equity groups might look like in that process.

“The next step, now that the MOU has been signed, is creating a model rule at the regional level,” said Skowron. “That model rule will be the basis upon which Rhode Island will create any legislation to enable the TCI Program. The model rule will include things like how to set up the auctions so that fuel suppliers and distributors are able to participate; what bidding prices are like to start out; and what kind of mechanisms are in place to make sure that emissions decrease over time and that the price of gasoline doesn’t vary uncontrollably. All those things are to be finalized so that with Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and DC have signed on, more states will participate once they see what’s in that model rule.

“Rhode Island will be engaged in the process, and that will inform the legislation which is set to be drafted through collaborative work at the Department of Environmental Management and the Governor’s office,” continued Skowron. “Where a group like Green Energy Consumers Alliance would be involved is both in the lobbying and education efforts – trying to help people understand what the TCI Program is and what its benefits are. Also, groups like ours will work to ensure that the equity provisions are strong and protect the folks that have been most overburdened and underserved by the existing transportation system.”

Under the memorandum of understanding, each jurisdiction will commit “to allot no less than 35 percent of the annual proceeds to assist communities overburdened by transportation pollution and associated negative health impacts and underserved by the current transportation system” and “Rhode Island will designate an equity advisory body with diverse representation and community involvement to advise on developing criteria to identify overburdened and underserved communities, provide recommendations for investments, and assist with developing metrics to evaluate the success of these investments.”

Mal Skowron: That 35% provision is something that a lot of equity based and advocacy groups from across the region have been encouraging. There’s still a lot of things to be decided, for example, the equity advisory boards, that will assess how the money is being spent and how the program is doing a couple of years down the line.

But it’s still unclear who is on those boards, what kind of agency they have when it comes to allocating funding, what kind of say do they have, what their role is going to be, etc. So groups like Green Energy Consumers and the Acadia Center as well are going to be advocating to increase the power of these equity advisory boards and strengthen those provisions.

UpriseRI: Carbon pricing legislation has come under fire in the past because in raising prices on energy, it hits low-income communities harder. Is this 35% commitment an attempt to offset that impact?

Skowron: You know, I’m a big proponent of electric vehicles but I don’t think that incentives for new electric vehicles are going to share the benefits equitably among all Rhode islanders. There are air quality and greenhouse gas reduction benefits that everyone will see, but in developing this program there’s agreement that the benefits of the investments should be as clear and as tangible as possible for everyone. So while electric vehicle rebates are part of what we want to do, there’s also things to improve public transit and improve walking and biking which are more likely to be used by those underserved and overburdened communities.

The increase in gasoline prices is expected to be five to seven cents, at least initially. That’s the difference in gas prices you might see on one part of the street versus driving a few miles and seeing prices five cents higher or lower. It’s well within the range that gasoline normally fluctuates. So it’s an opportunity to raise revenue without totally blowing the budgets of folks out of the water.

Uprise: A few years ago there was a proposal to put a price on carbon, but to issue rebate checks to lo-income Rhode Islanders, so they would not bear the brunt of the pricing.

Skowron: That was the basis of the Energize legislation. One benefit that comes from working in the transportation space is the amount of energy use per person. A large well insulated, energy efficient home may use less energy than a smaller, poorly insulated home may, but we see the opposite with transportation. Wealthy folks drive more, they tend to have bigger vehicles that consume more gasoline, and they tend to make trips that aren’t strictly necessary, recreational trips that consume gasoline that isn’t essential. Low-income folks struggling with bills aren’t contributing as much.

So while you can still call the policy regressive in that lower-income folks will pay a greater proportion of their income – we’re hoping we can temper that effect as much as possible by allocating the funding generated in a way that’s progressive. Though it’s not as direct as cutting people a check, with those equity provisions hopefully people will be able to see those benefits directly.

At least one local group expressed doubts about Governor Raimondo’s commitment to robust public transportation, noting the administration’s constant push for highway projects like the 6/10 Connector, its support for fracked gas expansion in the Port of Providence, and its efforts to destroy the Kennedy Plaza bus hub in service to real estate moguls.

“We welcome the Governor’s support for TCI and note her reference to transit and to safe streets for biking and walking,” said Patricia Raub, on behalf of the RI Transit Riders. “However, the Raimondo administration’s record on climate change and public transit is at best mixed. If implemented, the Governor’s efforts to deprive Rhode Island of its central transit hub will seriously damage the public transit system, worsen climate change and pollution, harm disabled people and seniors who depend on efficient public transit, and increase social injustice.

“While we applaud the Governor’s willingness to let RIPTA’s transit experts shape the Transit Master Plan, unfortunately, her administration has too often disrupted RIPTA’s work on transit by transferring authority to RIDOT, which is less responsive to the public,” continued Raub. “We hope the Governor’s support for TCI means that her administration will implement much of the transit and bike master plans rather than continuing to prioritize expensive projects to enhance highway capacity that encourage more driving and discourage climate-friendly alternatives.”

TCI is not the only tool Rhode Island and our region will need to fight Climate Change. While acknowledging that his group is “all in on TCI,” Climate Action RI’s Justin Boyan adds, “Much stronger laws than this will also be needed, but having the bipartisan, interstate TCI program in place is a good first step.”

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.