BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday hailed a step forward to combat climate change by reducing the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
The Transportation and Climate Initiative Program aims to reduce those emissions by 26 percent in its first decade and generate revenue that will fund climate resiliency efforts throughout the region.
The right wing Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance immediately went on the offensive, releasing a statement that claimed the multistate initiative would result in "an increase in gas prices up to 38 cents per gallon with very small emissions cuts."
TCI advocates have pegged the potential impact on motorists at a more moderate 17 cents per gallon while emphasizing its dual benefits: an overall reduction in carbon emissions coupled with a funding stream for more sustainable infrastructure.
"The price of doing nothing is very big," Baker said during his Beacon Hill press conference. "If you think about the amount of money that the federal government, state governments and local government spend these days on weather events — far more significant weather events than anyone used to see, on a far more regular basis. They had the most brutal hurricane season that they've ever had in the South this year. The droughts in California and high wind translated into fires and an overhang associated with fires that you could see across most of the American West.
"We have many instances here in Massachusetts and across New England where flash storms will flood out whole parts of some of our downtowns for days and sometimes a week at a time. And people have to make the investments to clean up the mess but don't actually get to the point where they make the investment that would make that area resilient so it wouldn't happen the next time it occurs."
Massachusetts joined Connecticut, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia in signing on to the TCI on Monday.
Baker said that even as the commonwealth deals with the public health and economic crises wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, his administration hasn't "taken our eyes off this other urgent challenge," referring to the climate crisis.
Environmental activists say the novel coronavirus has been exacerbated by pre-existing environmental factors that the TCI is designed to address.
"We've seen the clear connection between air quality and poor health outcomes with COVID-19," said Eugenia Gibbons, the Boston director for climate policy for the global nonprofit Health Care Without Harm. "Every day, clinicians treat patients suffering from respiratory and circulatory ailments linked to toxic air exposure. Mobile fossil fuel combustion disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color — the same communities experiencing the worst health impacts of climate change. TCIP is an important tool to decrease sector carbon emissions and improve health while generating much-needed revenue for investments in clean transportation alternatives and a modern transit system."
The director of the Boston-based Transportation for Massachusetts agreed.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare deep inequities in our public health and transportation systems," Chris Dempsey said in a news release. "The images of essential workers struggling to get to work to provide us with health care, food and other necessities in the midst of the pandemic cannot be unseen. They deserve better.
"TCI will be an important part of our recovery from the pandemic as well as an enduring mechanism for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, reducing the public health impacts of pollution and growing our innovation economy."
The TCI is described by advocates as a "cap and invest" initiative that requires gasoline and diesel suppliers to purchase "allowances" for the pollution generated by their products. Auctioning those allowances is expected to generate $300 million annually for investments in "equitable, less polluting and more resilient transportation."
Monday's announcement was not a complete win for those advocates, who conceive of the TCI as a broader-based regional initiative of 12 states and Washington, D.C., up and down the eastern seaboard.
One plus is that in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the states already in the TCI, account for 73 percent of the transportation emissions in New England, Baker said.
Baker likened the roll out to the more familiar Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which he said got off to a "rocky start" when it began in 2009.
"RGGI ... which has now been in place for seven or eight years, which is a very similar model on power, has turned out over time to be a very effective way to make it possible for people to invest in cleaner energy solutions, resiliency and energy efficiency," Baker said. "It's my hope that over the course of the next couple of years you'll see additional people come aboard.
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