family on cargo bike
Virginians gathered in 2019 at a Northend Greenway trail construction celebration event. Credit: New Community Project / Courtesy

The recently revamped Virginia Council on Environmental Justice is among groups that want the state to commit to the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

What some in Harrisonburg, Virginia, dismissed as scrappy wasteland along a trashed creek has been embraced by a nonprofit as an oasis for residents whose voices are rarely heard or heeded.

The New Community Project calls the reclaimed ribbon the Northend Greenway. Foot by foot, the nonprofit and its partners are constructing a 7-mile pedestrian and bicycle path in the city that is integral to connecting underserved neighbors to their jobs, schools and other vital resources.

Tom Benevento is founder and co-director of New Community’s presence in Harrisonburg. His 13 years with a nonprofit devoted to equity on numerous levels in this country and overseas shaped his desire to join the relatively new and recently revamped Virginia Council on Environmental Justice.

Navigating hurdles with the Northend Greenway heightened his awareness of the state’s shortcomings on access to low-carbon travel. Delivery needed to be a priority, not just a buzzword.

His homework and due diligence prompted the 14-member environmental justice council to back Virginia’s decision to align with an East Coast collaborative deploying a cap-and-invest model to develop a clean economy and curb transportation emissions by 30% by 2032, from 2023 base levels. That sector accounts for roughly 40% of total heat-trapping gases in the region.

In 2018, Virginia was the first southern state to express interest in partnering with what’s called the Transportation and Climate Initiative. Participation could generate an estimated $250 million annually for Virginia to invest in clean energy solutions such as public transit, electric buses and charging stations. Briefly, the initiative requires transportation fuel suppliers to buy allowances at auction for each ton of carbon dioxide produced beyond a certain ceiling.

“My on-the-ground experience in Harrisonburg helped me to push this TCI issue out before the council,” Benevento said. “This is about equitable access in our most vulnerable communities.”

Council members spelled out their support for the initiative in two simple sentences on page 44 of a far-reaching 81-page report that members issued in July. The council recommended that members continue to research related transportation topics through an equity lens. For instance, they will study how to promote transit-oriented development, interconnected trail and transit routes, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and regional transportation planning.

“We saw the need to help create some sort of transformation,” Benevento said about the council’s agenda for the new year. “Our job is to bring these voices forward.”

Virginians gathered in 2019 at a Northend Greenway trail construction celebration event. Credit: New Community Project / Courtesy

Virginia still at TCI table

The mix of 11 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states shaping the Transportation and Climate Initiative has changed a bit over the years. For instance, New Hampshire has opted out, while North Carolina has recently stepped in.

Virginia didn’t follow the lead of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia by immediately signing a memorandum of understanding that leaders of the initiative released in late December. Other states also watching and waiting are Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Some Virginia climate activists fretted about their state’s inaction. At the same time, a contingent of Virginia Republicans had long warned that the funding mechanism would trickle down to higher gas prices at the pump.

However, those tracking the initiative closely say Virginia’s inaction was simply a matter of logistics. The coronavirus pandemic and other organizational issues had significantly delayed the release of the memorandum until just a few days before Christmas. That tight timeline meant Virginia officials barely had time to review the details. Plus, the General Assembly’s shorter-than-usual session — which began in mid-January and is slated to wrap up this month — was already jam-packed with other issues such as a budget in flux due to uncertainties related to the pandemic.

Chris Bast, who has a long history with climate policy, was appointed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam two and a half years ago as chief deputy director of the Department of Environmental Quality.

“I wouldn’t say the governor has chosen not to sign, he just hasn’t considered it yet,” Bast said about the initiative. “I expect a couple waves of signatures. In the months following the General Assembly adjournment, any number of issues will come to the fore and we will address it then.”

Bast said that lack of Northam’s signature doesn’t prevent his agency from “continuing to work on the development and potential implementation of the program.” He added that Virginia is planning to craft a number of strategies to tackle the state’s specific transportation and climate issues.

The memorandum allows states to join the initiative before or after initial allowance sales in 2022.

Ultimately, Virginia legislators have to be involved because senators and representatives have to authorize the Air Pollution Control Board to adopt regulations connected with the initiative, Bast said. In addition, the General Assembly would need to approve any spending if the regulations lead to financial proceeds.

“These [votes] don’t have to happen concurrently,” Bast said, “but would be most efficient if they did.” 

On a political note, this is the final legislative session of Northam’s four-year term. Governors in Virginia are barred from serving consecutive terms. While legislators could vote to approve an initiative-connected plan devised by state agencies as soon as the 2022 session, it’s not clear what might unfold if Virginians elect a Republican governor or flip either the Democratic-majority House of Delegates or Senate. 

“Our objective is to keep Virginia at the table,” Bast said.

Advocates pushing for greener transportation policies across Virginia say that’s a reasonable strategy.

Stuart Gardner, of Charlottesville-based Generation 180, said the fact that so few states signed the memorandum right away makes him think Virginia needed more time to digest the details. But he doesn’t want the state to overthink an initiative that’s strong on innovation and sustainability.

“Our position is that Virginia should sign the MOU [memorandum of understanding] and start tackling the number one source of carbon emissions in the state,” said Gardner, director of the nonprofit’s Electrify Your Ride endeavor. “TCI is not just about electric vehicles. It’s one piece of the puzzle and covers the whole gamut of transportation.”

Senior attorney Trip Pollard has decades of transportation policy experience at the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

“There are a whole lot of details to be worked out,” Pollard said, adding that equity is a crucial component of the plan. “We want to be sure it’s done right and have everybody included so Virginia has a robust implementation process.”   

TCI just part of tackling transportation pollution

Nearly half of Virginia’s carbon pollution — an estimated 48% — is spewed by the transportation sector. And, just as Virginia is addressing emissions of heat-trapping gases from the power sector with measures such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Virginia Clean Economy Act, reining in tailpipe emissions won’t be a one-shot solution.

“Transportation is no different,” Bast said. “The Transportation and Climate Initiative isn’t going to address this all by itself. It will work better in tandem with other programs.”

He referred to Virginia’s distribution of close to $94 million from the Volkswagen environmental mitigation fund to drive down transportation pollution as a practice run for the potential quarter of a billion dollars the state could receive annually from the initiative’s cap-and-invest program.

Those two pots of money combined with others, such as state gas taxes and federal transportation funds, can address a spectrum as far-reaching as highway maintenance, electric vehicle rebates, broadband access, access to public transit and bike trails, and transitioning the transportation economy away from fossil fuels.

Bast emphasized that the Department of Environmental Quality is tasked with balancing a package of pollution-slicing investments that also ensures those benefits and burdens are equitably distributed.

Proponents of the multistate initiative acknowledged all along that gasoline and diesel prices could jump between 5 and 17 cents per gallon if suppliers pass along the additional costs to consumers. That caused New Hampshire to backpedal on its commitment and led to yelping in Virginia and other states.

Traditionally, Virginia’s gas tax was among the lowest nationwide at 16.2 cents per gallon. In July, that will rise to 21.2 cents and then to 26.2 cents a year later. Afterward, it will be adjusted each year to keep pace with inflation. 

Businesses, colleges, investors on board

Businesses up and down the East Coast view the Transportation and Climate Initiative as complementary to their climate goals. For instance, DHL Express, the courier business that’s one piece of a giant logistics enterprise, set a 2017 goal of net-zero emissions in its transport sector by 2050.

Dan McGrath, a DHL vice president based in Florida, said his company has a large presence in Virginia.

“We see value in these initiatives because they go beyond what we can do as one company,” he said. “Money is being reinvested and helping states embrace green infrastructure. We’ve got a big target we want to achieve and we’re making it clear we will be supportive.” 

Ceres, a Boston-based sustainability nonprofit, is a longtime supporter of the initiative. Last fall, Ceres worked with other climate and health organizations to coordinate an effort by more than 100 businesses, investors and colleges to encourage their state leaders to adopt it. DHL was among those recruits.

“We’re disappointed Virginia didn’t join in the first wave,” said Alli Gold Roberts, director of state policy at Ceres. “We’re still assessing. We are eager to see a coalition of states join at a later date.”

Roberts joined a chorus in lauding initiative architects for their commitment to overburdened and underserved communities as that issue garnered more attention.

For instance, during a September webinar they announced a plan to invest at least 35% of the proceeds to cities, towns and rural areas that have long been neglected and ignored.

That’s just one reason Benevento wants the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice to continue bird-dogging the initiative’s equity potential in Harrisonburg — and beyond.

After all, the Northend Trail was just a figment 15 years ago. Since then, his New Community Project has sparked a grassroots movement that aerial-mapped the topography, raised $90,000 in cash and in-kind donations such as engineering services, and added the pathway to the city’s master plan in 2015. Another $1.2 million was freed up for the cause when the state matched a city grant of $600,000.

Still, there are significant gaps between the half-mile of pathway completed on the northern part and the 1.5 miles on the southern section.

Benevento is eager for the day when the entire route links neighbors living at the adjacent Salvation Army shelter, a small trailer court and Habitat for Humanity homes, or visiting Our Community Place for a meal or a workshop. Many along that stretch are recent immigrants from Central America employed in the area’s chicken industry. 

Eventually, it will connect a farmers market and local businesses before reaching James Madison University and feeding into a separate trail.

He heralded trails for the difference they can make in alleviating congestion, saving roadway wear and tear, and slowing climate change. But that’s not the whole story.

“Perhaps more importantly, greenways can provide a profound sense of joy,” Benevento said about the smiling families he sees exercising and engaging with the outdoors. “This is something a fast, motorized highway will never be able to do.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.