Traffic light
Credit: Tim Gouw / Creative Commons

In the wake of Massachusetts’ decision to withdraw from a regional plan to curb transportation emissions, environmental and transit advocates see a chance to create policies and programs that could be even more equitable and effective at fighting climate change. 

“Now there’s a real opportunity to really invest in infrastructure, invest in public transit, and enforce emissions reductions,” said Maria Belen Power, associate executive director of environmental justice organization GreenRoots. 

The expected influx of federal infrastructure funds and bills already pending in the state legislature, advocates said, could help Massachusetts make significant advances in its plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in a manner that benefits populations traditionally marginalized in conversations about environmental progress. 

As Massachusetts pursues its ambitious goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050, controlling transportation emissions — currently about 40% of the statewide total — is going to be essential. The regional transportation plan was expected to be a major part of the strategy.

The multistate agreement, which now faces an uncertain future, grew out of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a group of 13 states and Washington, D.C. that collaborate on solutions to problems related to transportation and climate change. In late 2018, nine of these states and Washington, D.C. announced they were working together to develop a cap-and-trade plan to limit and eventually lower greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources. 

The resulting plan, generally known as TCI, called for diesel and gasoline fuel suppliers in participating states to buy “allowances” for the pollution emitted by their products, a charge that would be passed on to consumers at the pump. The revenue collected would be reinvested in climate and clean transportation projects. Massachusetts estimated it could receive as much as $1.8 billion from the program by 2032.

Massachusetts was a chief proponent and logistical leader throughout the development of the plan, which was considered a major element of the state’s strategy for reducing transportation emissions. However, support soon crumbled in many of the other states, largely because of resistance to the idea of higher gasoline prices. By this summer, only Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. remained in the pact.

In mid-November, Connecticut withdrew from the deal, and a few days later, Gov. Charlie Baker decided Massachusetts should do the same. Rhode Island soon exited as well. 

Supporters of the plan were left disappointed, but eager to think about how the state could not just replace the revenue TCI was expected to generate and achieve the emissions reductions the plan targeted, but do so in a way that is even more effective and fair to traditionally marginalized communities. 

“As much as it’s a disappointment that TCI is no longer moving forward, it does provide an opportunity for the legislature to get more feedback from environmental justice communities and other stakeholders to craft policies that are more Massachusetts-centric,” said Tim Cronin, state director for Climate XChange, a Boston-based climate organization that supports carbon prices. 

A focus on fairness

Many advocates focused on environmental justice had long been doubtful about TCI’s claims to promote equity for communities of color and low-income populations. The plan called for participating states to invest at least 35% of the revenue received “to ensure that overburdened and underserved communities benefit equitably from clean transportation projects and programs.”

For many, that number was too low and the promises of fairness not firm enough. 

“We were very skeptical of market-based mechanisms like cap-and-trade to reduce emissions and to help [environmental justice] communities,” Power said. 

Some bills already under consideration in the state legislature could do more to provide for environmental justice communities, advocates said.

The Green Future Now coalition, a group effort by more than 40 environmental and climate action organizations, is pushing for the passage of the Green Future Act, a bill that would impose a carbon price on transportation and heating fuels, generating an estimated $500 million to $750 million in revenue each year. 

Some of the money raised would be sent as direct cash payments to households with income in the bottom 40%. Much of the money would be allocated to towns and cities to invest in projects that would lower carbon emissions. About 60% of these funds would be earmarked for environmental justice areas. 

“The Green Future Act does a better job of prioritizing environmental justice,” Cronin said.

The Environmental League of Massachusetts is amplifying its support of two bills focused on electrifying transportation. One would require the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which operates rail, bus, and ferry systems in and around Boston, to fully electrify its bus fleet by 2030. The second bill calls for all publicly owned and leased fleet vehicles to be electric by 2035. Both proposals mandate the state first deploy these new, cleaner vehicles in environmental justice neighborhoods.

It is also important that Massachusetts implement the Advanced Clean Truck rule, a California regulation that requires automakers to meet an increasing target of zero-emissions truck sales, said Alli Gold Roberts, director of the state policy program at Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit that works with companies and investors pursuing sustainability goals. 

The Baker administration has declared its intention of adopting the rule, but has yet to do so. Lowering emissions from the largest trucks would both advance climate goals and have an impact on environmental justice communities, Roberts noted. Many shipping corridors pass through low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, contributing to higher levels of air pollution and health issues.

Moving forward with some of these efforts would help create good faith with environmental justice communities, where residents have too often been disappointed by big promises that didn’t come through, said Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, a Boston nonprofit that advocates for convenient, equitable, and sustainable public transportation. 

“It’s a chance to rethink — a chance to really do some deep engagement in those communities,” he said. “Then you get some of that trust.”

Federal infrastructure funding

Many advocates said the anticipated funds from the federal infrastructure bill should help kickstart projects like bus electrification, improved public transit, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. 

Massachusetts is expected to get at least $9 billion from the bill, including $4.2 billion for road improvements, $1.1 billion for bridge repair and replacement, $2.5 billion to improve public transit, and at least $100 million to improve broadband access. Millions more could come from competitive grants programs, such as the $12 billion pool slated to build or improve intercity rail lines. 

More important than the total sums, however, is how the money is spent, advocates said. Legislators and the administration will need to commit to using the money in ways that advance both climate and environmental justice goals, they said. 

“We should have top-of-mind to use those dollars to get us to our net-zero goals,” said Nancy Goodman, vice president for policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “It’s critically important.”

As helpful as the federal funding will be, the state should not get complacent, Goodman warned. The one-time infusion of money is meant to be used over several years, but the state will need a sustained revenue source to keep its progress going once the federal funds have been spent. 

In 2020, the legislature was considering a bill that would have created an ongoing revenue stream for transportation improvements, but the effort got left behind when lawmakers had to focus on dealing with the pandemic. Goodman would like to see that bill revisited. She also hasn’t ruled out the possibility that TCI will be revived in a few years and be able to provide that revenue. 

“Timing is everything,” Goodman said. “I don’t feel we’re giving up on TCI.”

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe,, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.