The Rhode Island State Capitol Building.
The Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence. Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel / Creative Commons

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The passage of landmark climate legislation in Rhode Island is expected to help build support for a second major environmental measure waiting in the wings, this one focused on transportation emissions. 

The Act on Climate, signed into law last week by Gov. Dan McKee, sets mandatory and enforceable targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of reaching net-zero by 2050.

“Now that Act on Climate is signed, there seems to be some strong enthusiasm for looking at how to meet the targets in that law,” said Terrence Gray, deputy director for environmental protection at the state Department of Environmental Management. “And for the transportation sector, TCI is the plan.”

TCI — the Transportation and Climate Initiative — is a regional cap-and-invest program designed to reduce emissions from vehicles by 26% by 2032. Former Gov. Gina Raimondo, who has since been named U.S. secretary of commerce, signed a memorandum of understanding to join the initiative along with Connecticut, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. 

Lawmakers in Rhode Island and Connecticut must pass authorizing legislation before those states may participate, however, and passage is hardly assured. The program is being publicly assailed by fuel suppliers, gas station owners, conservative groups and many Republican lawmakers in both states as little more than a gas tax. 

Under the program, beginning in 2023, wholesale fuel suppliers in each participating jurisdiction would have to purchase “allowances” for the pollution created by their products. The number of allowances available at the quarterly auctions would be gradually reduced over time. 

States could use the proceeds from the auctions — expected to generate tens of millions annually — to make infrastructure investments that will further reduce air pollution, such as electrifying buses, installing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and adding bike lanes. 

Advocates have acknowledged that fuel suppliers will likely pass along the additional costs to consumers at the pump. Their modeling projects an impact of around 5 cents a gallon in 2023, with a gradual increase to 10 cents a gallon by 2032 as the cap tightens.

At the March public hearing for the enabling legislation proposed by Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Katie Dykes, commissioner of the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told lawmakers that a cost-containment mechanism built into the program would act as “a guard rail” to prevent price increases from exceeding 9 cents a gallon in the early years.

She also pointed out that “we are in the midst of a climate crisis,” in which the increasing intensity of storm events, flooding, drought and heat threatens to take a much heavier financial toll.

“The costs of inaction far, far exceed the modest cost of programs like TCI,” she said. 

The Environment Committee approved the legislation, after boosting the share of TCI proceeds that must be invested in overburdened and underserved communities from 35% to 50%. It has been referred to the Senate floor and is awaiting further action. 

“I’m really excited that it passed out of the Environment Committee with what I interpreted to be really strong support,” said state Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee. “I’m feeling confident that we’re going to be able to pass it into law. It doesn’t have a lot of bipartisan support right now, but hope springs eternal.”

Legislation in Rhode Island is still being drafted. Gray, who is working closely on TCI with his counterparts in other states, said he expects a bill to be introduced shortly.

“We’re a little bit behind for a couple of reasons,” he said. “Our legislature has been focused on the Act on Climate — they spent a lot of energy on that. And we’ve been going through a transition, and that has involved briefing new staff and the new governor on both bills.”

Passage of TCI “naturally follows” passage of a climate bill with enforceable reduction targets, said state Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, Act on Climate’s lead sponsor. 

“The transportation sector needs to be part of the conversation,” she said.

Opponents are actively campaigning against it. The Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a right-wing advocacy group based in Connecticut, is funding advertisements that air regularly at 135 gas stations across Connecticut warning consumers that the initiative will boost prices at the pump by 17 cents a gallon, and urging them to sign a petition against it on the institute’s website.

“The gas prices are what people are going to feel,” said Marc Fitch, senior communications manager for the Yankee Institute. “Connecticut has a very high cost of living and a very high energy price already.” 

Fitch said the 17-cent figure comes from a 2019 estimate by TCI’s own creators. He acknowledged that the figure preceded the introduction of the cost-containment mechanism, but said the estimates keep changing even now. 

Asked whether the institute favors action on reducing emissions in general, Fitch said Connecticut has already taken plenty of action. 

“We’re moving toward offshore wind, we’re part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — it’s one thing on top of another,” he said. “At some point, you have to balance the environmental concern with the concern of how you’re impacting people’s everyday lives.”

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity is also actively opposing TCI; both organizations are part of the State Policy Network, a coordinated network of conservative think tanks. 

Alli Gold Roberts, director of state policy for Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit that works on sustainable business practices, said the “disinformation” campaigns around gas prices are impacting public opinion. “People hear 17 cents and that feels real to them,” she said.

But advocates are brainstorming ways to better educate the public about the many benefits of TCI, she said, such as increased access to public transit, electric school buses, electric vehicle incentives, and more walkable communities. In addition, members of the broad business coalition Ceres has helped assemble in support of TCI are actively reaching out to lawmakers, she said.

The Partnership for Rhode Island, a roundtable of the 13 largest companies in the state, including CVS and Hasbro, is putting together case studies to demonstrate how TCI revenues could be invested to the benefit of communities and businesses, said Tom Giordano, the executive director. One example might be a voucher program to help small businesses electrify their fleets, he said. 

The case studies could help counteract “negative messaging” that, in its simplicity, is very compelling for small businesses struggling to recover from the pandemic, he said.

“We hope we can change the narrative from ‘don’t tax us more’ to ‘what could we do with the revenue and how could small businesses benefit?’” he said.

Lisa Prevost

Lisa Prevost is a longtime journalist based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." A native New Englander, Lisa covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.