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Connecticut’s top environmental official sees a silver lining amid the collapse of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the multistate pact that had sought to fund clean transportation investments across the region. 

Katie Dykes, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, says the lengthy discussions around how to invest TCI revenues equitably, with a focus on environmental justice communities, will inform the administration in a new effort: setting priorities for the billions of dollars in federal funds anticipated from the newly passed infrastructure bill. 

“The good news is we have the opportunity to take a lot of those ideas and the results of all of that dialogue as we plan and prioritize our clean transportation investments,” Dykes said. “The TCI dialogue sets us up really well.”

Dykes made her comments during a panel discussion Monday at the annual Northeast Multimodal Transit Summit, hosted remotely by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress. She was joined on the panel by Dr. Mark Mitchell, an associate professor at George Mason University and a public health specialist, and state Sen. Christine Cohen, co-chair of the legislature’s Environment Committee.

Joining TCI would have involved placing a fee on carbon in gasoline and diesel. The revenues generated by the fee, paid by wholesale fuel suppliers, would be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying buses, installing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, adding bike lanes and other measures. 

The governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all signed onto a memorandum of understanding to join the initiative. But they have so far failed to garner the support they need to move forward. Critics have assailed the program as a gas tax, because fuel suppliers would likely pass the fee onto consumers. And some lawmakers feared that the additional cost at the pump would be too burdensome on low-income households.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s announcement this month that he would no longer push for the enabling legislation needed for the state to join TCI had an immediate domino effect. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee quickly withdrew their support as well.

That leaves Connecticut scrambling for other aggressive strategies for reducing transportation emissions, which account for nearly 40% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the state has set ambitious reduction targets, an emissions inventory released by the environmental agency this year showed that transportation emissions are currently on the rise.

While the increase is modest, “even a modest increase is problematic,” Dykes said. “We need to reduce emissions by roughly one-third by 2030 if we are going to meet the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act targets.”

Mitchell noted that even though cities like Hartford and New Haven have high percentages of households without cars, they still bear the brunt of pollution caused by transportation, partly because major urban highways tend to intersect in urban neighborhoods.

Communities of color are plagued by high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, he said. He credited state officials for having agreed to invest 50% of the revenues raised by TCI in those “overburdened and underserved” communities.

“From my perspective as an African American public health and environmental health physician engaged in policy over the last 25 years, TCI was the legislation most likely to reduce asthma of any legislation over that time period,” Mitchell said.

But Mitchell said he was confident Connecticut could still prioritize equity concerns as it considers federally funded transportation projects. He suggested that the state set up an Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Board to help guide the process, as envisioned under TCI.

Dykes also struck an upbeat tone, saying she’s “eager to get to work building on a lot of the engagement we did through TCI” in planning clean transportation investments.

She noted that policymakers had yet to officially define “overburdened and underserved” communities for the purposes of TCI. That bit of “unfinished business” will have to be taken care of in order to apply the concepts to the spending of federal funds, she said.

Sen. Cohen said the pullback on TCI would likely result in a “resurgence” of some pending bills related to environmental justice.

That includes a bill requiring the state environmental agency to assess the environmental and air quality impacts of adopting California’s emissions standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. The bill authorizes the commissioner to adopt the standards if the analysis concludes it is necessary to meet state greenhouse gas reduction requirements. 

“I intend to see to it that we get that bill over the proverbial finish line next session,” Cohen said. “We came really close last session, but we couldn’t get it out of the House.”

Cohen, who had championed TCI along with Sen. Will Haskell, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said that the two were now “putting their heads together” along with Dykes to see what else they could do to drive Connecticut forward toward cleaner air. 

“I certainly would like to see more in the way of electrification of school buses,” she said. “How can we make that happen?”

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.