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Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Region Face Urgent Need to Modernize Transportation

A new report by the National Resources Defense Council calls for a multistate transportation collaborative to reduce congestion and pollution on the east coast. But it won't be cheap.

Reforming transportation and transit in the population-dense Northeast Corridor of the United States is the only way to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the region and improve the livability of cities. These are some of the findings in a new report by the National Resources Defense Council, issued July 19, 2018.
The study, “Transportation Reimagined: A Roadmap for Clean and Modern Transportation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Region,” calls for improvements in public transit, changes to public policy to reduce congestion, development of more walkable and bikeable communities and investments in electric vehicle infrastructure.
“Our report provides a vision for what modern and clean transportation in this region should look like, across urban, suburban and rural communities,” said Bruce Ho, principal report author and senior advocate, Climate & Clean Energy, NRDC, during a recent conference call with reporters. 
The report focuses on modernizing transportation in 11 eastern states and the District of Columbia. The states include: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. All 11 states and the District of Columbia make up the Transportation and Climate Initiative, which has been focusing on “clean transportation solutions since 2010,” according to the report.
Since then, seven states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, along with Washington, D.C. — have taken steps toward the development of a regional plan to upgrade transportation on the East Coast.
Modernizing the transportation and transit sector is viewed as perhaps the biggest step the region can take toward reducing pollution and slowing the effects of climate change. Transportation is responsible for 39 percent of carbon pollution, across the region, and produces 42 percent of pollution in New York, said Ho. In New Jersey, transportation is responsible for 52 percent of carbon pollution.
“We cannot solve climate change unless we address this sector,” he stressed.
The bill to clean up and modernize the transportation system in the region is estimated to cost some $1.5 billion to $6 billion per year across the 11 states, according to a report by the Georgetown Climate Center.
The higher figure — $6 billion per year — is needed to reach a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from the transportation sector by 2030. Though staggering, those costs are dwarfed by the outsized financial impact of highway traffic on the region.
“Traffic congestion in the five most congested cities in this region cost the economy $50 billion in 2017,” said Ho.
Congestion, “is something that New Yorkers talk about constantly,” said Tom Wright, president and CEO, Regional Plan Association (RPA).
“Things have changed dramatically over the last couple of years,” he added. “And what we’ve warned about in terms of traffic congestion and the fragility of our system has come to pass. So now, it’s not whether or not we’re going to invest, but how we’re going to invest, how we’re going to pay for it, what we’re going to spend the money on. And I think that’s why this is such a timely topic.”
In New York City commuters spend approximately 91 hours per year in traffic.
“The average travel speed of a taxi in midtown Manhattan is just 5 miles per hour, the same speed, basically, as a leisurely jog,” said Wright. “For the first time in recent memory, subway and bus ridership in New York City is actually declining, despite a robust economy.”
The New York City Council is considering capping the number of drivers for transportation network companies (TNC) like Uber or Lyft, The New York Times reported. The step would be the strongest by any U.S. city to reduce the number of ride-hailing vehicles, largely seen as a significant contributor to congestion.
The report also called for investments to increase the frequency of intercity passenger rail service. The region has the country’s most robust rail system, but needs to improve train speeds and efficiencies to attract riders and reduce road congestion.
It’s not the first time East Coast states have banded together to work toward a climate goal. A decade ago the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states joined together to form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, known as RGGI. That program led to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the region’s power plants by 50 percent.
“We can solve these problems by investing in a clean and modern transportation system, that includes safe, walkable and bikeable streets, improved public transportation, and clean electric vehicles powered by home-grown renewable energy,” said Ho. 
“Lowering traffic congestion to speed up travel by just 1 mile per hour would provide nearly $19 billion a year in regional benefits — from time savings, reduced fuel use, lower pollution impacts and lower costs of doing business,” he added. 
Reducing gasoline use by switching to electric vehicles and providing alternatives to personal vehicles could save more than $100 billion at the pump through 2035, the report concludes.
“It’s simply time to get this clean transportation show on the road,” said Ho. 
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.