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CLIMATE: Boxer gives ‘clean’ transit a push (Tuesday, October 27, 2009)
Josh Voorhees, E&E reporter

The latest draft of the Senate energy and climate bill would more than double the level of funding for public transit and other low-carbon transportation alternatives the House approved this summer.

Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) unveiled her chairman’s mark late Friday, setting aside an average of nearly 2.8 percent of the allocations over the first four years for “clean” transportation projects. Under the House bill (H.R. 2454), states would have only the option of using up to 1 percent of the allocations for such work.

The victory left many transit advocates hopeful they will be able to maintain, and possibly even expand, the funding levels as the bill moves toward a vote on the Senate floor.

“In general, this is obviously a victory for clean transportation,” said Colin Peppard, a transportation advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And we plan on working with Senator Boxer and committee staff to protect and expand it.”

The boost in transportation allocations was the result of a strong push from environmental groups, transportation advocates and a group of like-minded lawmakers backing legislation dubbed “Clean-Tea” (S. 575), which would require 10 percent of any cap-and-trade revenues to go toward low-carbon transportation.

While Boxer’s mark fell far short of that level, it was still being hailed as a triumph within the group.

“Obviously, it’s not 10 percent but given the context of the intense competition for these revenues, it feels pretty good,” said David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation For America, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation advocacy group.

The Clean-Tea legislation was authored by EPW Committee member Thomas Carper (D-Del.) and has steadily picked up increasing support from his fellow committee Democrats. Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Jeff Merkley of Oregon have all signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

Carper applauded the inclusion of Clean-Tea language in Boxer’s chairman’s mark that would tie the funding levels for cities and states to their emissions-reducing efforts. He said it was a “common-sense solution to the problem that we use a gas tax to fund our nation’s transportation system.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has introduced companion Clean-Tea legislation in the House and has lined up 14 co-sponsors including Reps. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio).

“The understanding of the role that transportation — and clean transportation in particular — has in the climate debate has been growing over the past few months,” Goldberg said. “It’s really a major victory.”

Low-carbon transportation projects had already secured a small, but significant victory in an earlier draft of the Senate bill. The House bill gave states the option of using up to 1 percent of allocations to address transportation emissions, but the Senate plan mandates states use all 1 percent.

Friday’s release of the allocation breakdown included a new program specifically to fund transportation projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions. The program’s allocation will begin at 2.21 percent of distributed allowances for 2012 and 2013, fall to 1.35 percent the following two years, and then will be between 0.9 percent 2.5 percent thereafter. Those allocations are in addition to the original 1 percent allocated to states to combat emissions from the transportation sector.

The transportation sector accounts for roughly one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and congressional Democrats and the White House have vowed to recast the nation’s roads and rails to curb fuel consumption and limit emissions.

But with the next multi-year transportation bill stalled as lawmakers look for ways to pay for the needed infrastructure investment, many of those advocating for transportation reform have shifted their attention to the climate debate in hopes of making a dent in transportation emissions.

Still, even with their latest victory, transportation advocates say they remain focused on the next transportation bill for the largest gains.

“As much as we need to have a climate bill that addresses transportation, we also need the opposite to be true,” Peppard said. “We have to have a transportation bill focused on climate.”

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