John McClaughry: Not much about roads in the transportation bill

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John McClaughry, the vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

[T]he Long Range Transportation Plan of 1995 reaffirmed as the highest priority the maintenance and improvement of Vermont’s highways and bridges. Hardly anyone disagreed. But beginning in earnest in 2006, climate change activists have succeeded in progressively shifting the emphasis of transportation policy toward reducing carbon dioxide emissions and defeating climate change.

Gasoline and diesel fueled-transportation contributes 43% of Vermont’s carbon dioxide emissions. This year’s transportation bill announces this controlling policy:

“This act includes the State’s fiscal year 2020 transportation investments intended to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, reduce fossil fuel use, and save Vermont households money in furtherance of the goals of the Comprehensive Energy Plan, and to satisfy the Executive and Legislative Branches’ commitments to the Paris Agreement climate goals.”

The Paris Agreement established CO2 emission quotas for 195 countries, and obliged developed countries like the U.S. to collectively hand over $100 billion a year to persuade the others to pretend to comply. It was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 but never sent to the Senate for ratification. President Donald Trump bailed the U.S. out in 2017, and after four years only seven of those 195 countries are actually on track to comply. Under pressure from enviros, Gov. Phil Scott announced in 2017 that Vermont will, in a gesture of climate solidarity, drive down our emissions to our prorated share of the U.S. contribution.

Most of the $286 million (plus federal funds) in the FY2020 transportation bill will of course continue to pay for highway and bridge maintenance, but a trip through the transportation bill shows how the emphasis has shifted.

The climate activists urgently believe that Vermonters must be lured or taxed out of their gasoline and diesel vehicles in favor of electric cars. Thus the bill offers more plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) purchase and lease incentives “to help all Vermonters to benefit from electric driving, including [of course!] Vermont’s most vulnerable.” If your family has under 160% of the five-year average median household income you can qualify for subsidies to allow you to buy a PEV that costs up to $40,000.

After three studies, the Legislature has still not figured out how to make PEV drivers pay anything at all for using the public highways. The present bill does allow state agencies to set fees for the electricity downloaded from state charging stations, which is an improvement over the present practice of just giving it away.

Of special interest is the 17% increase in public transportation spending, which includes $1.884 million (!) to pay for two (!) electric transit buses for the Burlington area, and $480,000 for two electric shuttle buses for the Montpelier area. Other new “low-carbon spending initiatives” include 77 bike/pedestrian projects and increasing the number of electric vehicles in the 734-vehicle state fleet from 54 to 367.

The bill mandates a study of a “feebate” program, whereby persons who buy larger and safer but less fuel-efficient cars are charged a “fee” (aka “tax”), and the proceeds are rebated to the purchasers of smaller, less safe, more fuel efficient, and more electrified vehicles.

Then there’s the eternal passenger rail fantasy. The bill assigns $5.2 million to upgrade the Rutland to Burlington track for future passenger traffic. The memory of Gov. Howard Dean’s $28 million Champlain Flyer boondoggle seems to have vanished beyond recovery, along with a million dollars worth of improvements pocketed by the owner of the Burlington train station.

Particularly interesting is the requirement of a study to support a seven mile (!) Barre to Montpelier commuter rail project. This was urged upon legislators by wind and solar mogul David Blittersdorf, who bought five elderly self-propelled Budd cars and wants to convert them from museum pieces into income-producing assets.

Finally, the bill endorses the Scott administration’s participation in the group designing the Transportation Climate Initiative. This will be a multistate cap-and-trade plan regulating and taxing the transportation use of fossil fuels. Each state would use the windfall proceeds to pay for “low-carbon and more resilient transportation infrastructure.”

When Democratic candidate Sue Minter proposed a TCI in a 2016 campaign debate, Scott immediately and correctly labelled it a carbon tax. Why he is actively supporting TCI development now remains a mystery.

There are some useful provisions in the bill, notably excusing 16-year-old vehicles from computerized inspection failures that have nothing to do with safe operation. But overall the bill illustrates how defeating climate change and suppressing CO2 emissions have come to overshadow the basic function of the Agency of Transportation – to preserve and maintain a network of highways to meet the transportation needs of the Vermonters who are paying the bills.


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