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Path being laid for greener transportation, but at a cost

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Pennsylvania's effort to develop a carbon-reduction plan alongside neighboring states could culminate by this time next year with initiatives to boost green transportation to spark investment in various zero-carbon technologies – but it will come at a cost.

The details remain to be worked out, leaving proponents of the so-called Transportation Climate Initiative, or TCI, hesitant to talk too much about specifics that might evolve out of the collaboration. Skeptics are concerned those details will hit consumers and businesses in the wallet.

“There are really no details that have been laid out,” said Gordon Denlinger, Pennsylvania state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “Typically, these types of systems cost and will play out at the pump or in vehicle registrations.”

Last month, Pennsylvania joined Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia to create programs that would limit carbon emissions with some sort of fee. The money would be used to invest in initiatives such as encouraging private investment in electric-charging stations for cars or converting fossil-fuel buses to electric. Similar efforts in electricity more than 10 years ago led to the eventual decline of coal-fired power plants and investment in solar, wind and other forms of green energy.

Those results led to a steep decline in carbon emissions but also boosted jobs and created businesses because entrepreneurs would use the programs to invest their own money, said Jackson Morris, eastern region director of the climate and clean energy program of the National Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.

Morris, whose office is in Lewisburg, said those successes led to regional discussions about spurring green technologies in transportation. The talks have been going on for several years, he added, but they culminated with the pact in December involving the nine states and the District.

“This is not a new forum,” he said. “It’s not like this is a cold start.”

This year, he said, is when “these states are going to roll up their sleeves” with the goal of putting the regional transportation system on a path that is modern, efficient and clean. Morris said advocates acknowledge the concern about costs and encourage businesses to add to the discussions as the details are worked out.

“Anyone who says there isn’t going to be a cost is delusional,” Morris said. “We have to confront that there is going to be a cost.”

“But there are monumental costs to doing nothing,” he added.

Denlinger noted that Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax is far higher than neighboring states, which makes it difficult for businesses that rely on transportation. One idea he has heard might involve a tax on gas wholesalers, which would pass any increases onto businesses and consumers with higher prices at the pump, he said. In addition, the cost of trucking would rise, affecting the price of consumer goods.

“Our concern is for the struggling businesses out there and the high costs they already have to bear,” he said. “And this will make it worse.”

The country will be facing major technological changes in the transportation fields, especially with electric vehicles, Denlinger acknowledged. But those changes would be best handled by market forces – when people see a need, they make the investment, and they get a return for their risks, he said.

“That is part of the nature of our system,” he said, adding that the government should not get involved. “We very much would look for free-market solutions.”

Morris agreed, to a point, saying that “absolutely” the private sector will play the primary role in future investments. The money that would come from any programs would merely “kick start” private investment – similar to incentives that helped green-energy companies to start, grow and then prosper. The fees themselves would not provide for sustainable change, so advocates understand that private investment is needed, Morris added.

The means of raising the initial money will be an important policy debate, Morris said, and he thinks that small businesses that get involved will see the possibilities and how change could help them. A delivery company that might benefit, for example, by having an electric vehicle in a city. He fully expects strong pushback from the fossil-fuel lobby.

In a written response to questions, Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of the American Petroleum Industries of PA, said the oil and natural gas industry has invested “billions” to reduce carbon emissions.

“CO2 emissions in the United States have plunged to their lowest level in a generation, and long-term responses to the risk of climate change will necessitate innovation and technology development,” she wrote in an email. “We will evaluate any proposal that comes out of this effort with an eye to balancing environmental progress with keeping consumer energy costs low in the region.”

Denlinger and Morris both noted the lack of details means the impact of any fees or programs isn’t known, and that will create some concern. Denlinger suggested that Pennsylvania might create its own plan.

“We look forward to hearing from the governor and his team on what his approach will be for Pennsylvania,” Denlinger said.

Gov. Tom Wolf, who was just elected to his second four-year term as a Democrat, has been vocal about his support for green-energy policies. In a separate but related initiative Jan. 8, Wolf signed an executive order to increase “green and sustainable practices in the state government,” according to a statement released at the time.

A newly created GreenGov Council is expected to reduce energy use and improve efficiency in state buildings and vehicles by adopting a number of goals, such as replacing a quarter of the state’s car fleet with electric vehicles by 2025.

The regional initiative will look at a number of other ideas, such as developing amenities that make biking and walking more attractive in rural, urban and suburban communities and looking at ways to improve public transportation between states, said Tom Schuster, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club, whose office is in Johnstown. But the “cap and invest” strategy will be a big part of any overall plan, he suggested, adding that much of the discussion will center on those proposals.

“There will always be pushback when it comes to perceptions that fuel prices might rise,” Schuster said. “A big part of the success will be the ability to educate people on the benefits.”

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