A walk sign, illuminated green.

Rhode Island is not on track to hit its greenhouse gas reduction target in 2030, and a primary reason, advocates say, is transportation emissions. 

Transportation accounts for the largest share of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, at nearly 40%, according to the state Department of Environmental Management’s latest greenhouse gas inventory. 

And yet, said John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI, “We are still spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand highway capacity.” 

He is among a growing number of advocates calling for the state to get much more aggressive about investing in mass transit and other transportation emissions mitigation measures. The trend in those emissions has been up and down over the last decade, according to the emissions inventory, which noted that “significantly more zero-emission vehicles across weight classes will be required to meet Act on Climate emission reduction mandates.” 

That law sets enforceable targets of a 45% reduction in overall emissions below 1990 levels by 2030, 80% by 2040, and net zero by 2050.

An update to the state’s greenhouse gas reduction plan, approved last month by the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, known as the EC4, said the state is not yet making enough progress to achieve the 2030 goal. 

While the state has made progress in shrinking emissions in the electricity sector, transportation emissions aren’t dropping nearly quickly enough, said Anna Vanderspek, electric vehicle program director at the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, during a recent webinar on the topic.

“There are two strategies that we need to pursue at the same time,” she said. “One is we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled, which means more active mobility and more public transit. Rhode Island has great plans that need to be funded to do all that. 

“And the other side of this is that we need to make sure that any of the vehicles that do remain on our roads are electrified as quickly as possible.”

The alliance is working with two state lawmakers — Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Portsmouth, Middletown) and Sen. Alana DiMario (D-North Kingstown, Narragansett) — to introduce legislation that would help speed vehicle electrification. 

They want the state to adopt California’s Advanced Clean Cars II regulations, as well as its Advanced Clean Trucks regulations. 

The first requires auto manufacturers to gradually increase the proportion of electric vehicles they sell, starting with the 2026 model year, to eventually reach 100% by 2035. It also sets increasingly stringent standards for gasoline vehicles. 

The second requires manufacturers of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to sell an increasing percentage of zero-emission trucks from 2024 to 2035.

There are currently about 6,275 electric vehicles registered in Rhode Island; the EC4 report says the state needs 86,000 on the road by 2030. But Vanderspek said she thinks that’s a significant underestimate. Massachusetts, with six times as many residents as Rhode Island, has set a goal of 900,000 electric vehicles by 2030, she said.

Rhode Island has published a policy guide for improving access to EV charging infrastructure, and it recently created a rebate program for purchases of electric vehicles and electric bicycles. 

Advocates are also calling for policymakers to prioritize ramping up the statewide bus system, which operates under the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, or RIPTA. 

“It’s thought of as something that only poor people or handicapped people use, not as something for everybody,” said Patricia Raub, coordinator of RI Transit Riders, an advocacy group. “Unless we get a lot more middle-class people saying, ‘Oh, it’s fairly convenient,’ we’re not going to cut down our emissions and reach our goals.”

A Transit Master Plan approved by the State Planning Council in 2020 calls for doubling the level of RIPTA service, adding more weekend service, extending routes, and adding a high-capacity transit corridor over 20 years. That much-expanded service is necessary to make it convenient enough to attract more riders, Flaherty said. 

Nearly 80% of Rhode Island’s population can walk from their home to a public transit bus stop within 10 minutes, he said, but less than 3% of the population use the bus system to commute to work. And a big reason for that is that “taking transit can take you two to four times as long to get where you’re going” compared to driving. 

But the state has yet to put any funding toward the plan, which will cost an estimated $94 million to $154 million annually. 

Likewise, a Bicycle Mobility Plan approved by the State Planning Council in 2020 also lacks funding. That plan would dramatically expand the state’s network of bike paths and on-street bike lanes to improve connectivity, equity and safety. 

“We have some great bike paths, but projects get done here and there, almost as an afterthought,” said Kathleen Gannon, board chair for the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition. “To be effective, infrastructure has to be integrated into a network, and not isolated. And more people would choose cycling if they had a safe way to do so.”

The EC4 report mentions both the transit and bike plan, but says the Department of Transportation should look to their recommendations “as resources are available.” 

Charles St. Martin III, a transportation department spokesperson, said in an email that staff examines maps of proposed projects in both the transit and bike path plans to identify where overlap may occur with existing planned projects, “allowing incorporation of bike, pedestrian and transit components” into those projects.

As an example, he said a planned $48 million rehabilitation of the Ashton Viaduct Bridge over the Blackstone River will include new cycling paths to provide a connection to the Blackstone River Bikeway. 

The department has invested more than $200 million on bicycle and pedestrian enhancements around the state since 2016, he said. 

The department’s 10-year State Transportation Improvement Program includes $6 billion worth of projects through 2031. Work on roads and bridges makes up 88% of the estimated capital spending. Bicycle, pedestrian and transit projects account for 11%.

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander 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." Lisa covers New England.