Federal funding sparks conflict between R.I. transportation projects, climate goals

AN AMENDMENT TO ADD $750 million in federal funds to the State Transportation Improvement Program has created debate over how to marry state transportation projects with climate change mandates. / PBN FILE PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD

PROVIDENCE – A $750 million injection of federal funds for state transportation improvement projects has become the latest flashpoint in conflict over climate change and transportation goals.

The amendment to the State Transportation Improvement Program lays out a plan for how the state can use $748.3 million in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds to fast-track, and enhance, an existing slate of transportation improvement projects over the next 10 years. Many of the 150 project changes outlined center on road safety and repair, with some mentions of pedestrian and cyclist access and stormwater upgrades. But noticeably absent from the 500-page document are any references to the Act on Climate law passed in 2021, which sets legally enforceable benchmarks for the state to reduce its carbon emissions. Nowhere in the amendment is the word “climate” used at all.

The state Transportation Advisory Committee approved the plan anyway, passing the amendment in a 13-6 vote with one abstention in a meeting on Thursday. But the larger conflict over how to reconcile climate change considerations with a fossil fuel-filled transportation sector remains.

 “We need to dispel the narrative that climate reduction and the state of good repair projects are an either-or,” said Mal Skowron, transportation program and policy coordinator at Green Energy Consumers Alliance. Skowron is also a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee and voted against the amendment.

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Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, who sponsored the Act on Climate law that passed in 2021, said the STIP amendment offered the first real opportunity to incorporate climate goals into upcoming projects.

“I did not expect this amendment to get us to zero emissions,” Carson said in an interview on Friday. “But let’s at least put enforcement of the Act on Climate on the table so the TAC can begin incorporating it and the public can start to understand it.”

Although the Act on Climate law is not mentioned in the amendment, all federal and state guidelines and mandates – including its climate change laws – were taken into account by R.I. Department of Transportation planners, according to RIDOT Director Peter Alviti Jr.

“We don’t mention a lot of things that we automatically comply with,” Alviti said in an interview on Feb. 16.

If that was the case, Carson said she wanted that stated explicitly.

And if those explicit references don’t start now, when will they? 

The R.I. Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, the group charged with overseeing how the Act on Climate gets applied and its benchmarks achieved, did not offer a formal opinion on the state transportation amendment, although it was discussed briefly at its Feb. 9 meeting, according to Michael Healey, R.I. Department of Environmental Management spokesman. Asked whether the council had reviewed how to apply the law’s climate change mandates to other transportation projects, Healey said the group was focused on updating a 2016 law about greenhouse gas emissions.

That raised alarm bells for John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island. Flaherty also serves on the TAC and voted against the amendment.

“It would stand to reason that the EC4 [R.I. Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council] would be all over this,” he said in an interview on Friday. “They were silent on this consequential decision.”

Not many people got to speak before the TAC voted on Thursday, which was another source of criticism.

As a “minor” amendment – defined under the laws that govern the program based on how much the dollar figures are changing for specific projects – there was no public hearing required on the amendment, though there was a 12-day period for written public comments.

Critics railed against this interpretation of state laws, calling it “undemocratic,” “insane” and “wildly inappropriate” that there was no oral public comment on the STIP amendment before the decision.

The amendment also does not need the blessing of the State Planning Council, instead heading directly from the TAC to the governor for “concurrence” and to federal transportation agencies for final approval, according to Linsey Callaghan, the committee secretary, who also works for the R.I. Division of Statewide Planning.

But Flaherty wasn’t giving up yet. Without sharing details, he said there were discussions to use the General Assembly as a means for recourse, using legislation to require state transportation projects be assessed for their emissions’ impacts – modeling a recently adopted Colorado policy – or amending the STIP again.

While the STIP can – and often is – amended multiple times after its original passage, the state can’t start spending federal funds until it amends its plan to incorporate them, according to Pamela Cotter, RIDOT policy director and TAC member. That includes the $1.1 million allocation for fiscal 2022, which must be approved before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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