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Maryland should study the climate effects of highway expansion before committing to it

Parris N. Glendening is president of the Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute.

Maryland needs a new vision for transportation, one that focuses on moving people vs. cars as swiftly as possible while protecting our health, environment and planet. The first step toward this vision is to recognize that the current process does not work. Now, no Maryland or federal law requires an analysis of greenhouse emissions associated with major transportation projects. Though the Obama administration had issued guidance for agencies to consider greenhouse gas emissions and impacts of climate change in National Environmental Policy Act reviews, the Trump administration promptly scrapped this with an executive order in 2017.

Transportation is the largest source of climate-disrupting carbon pollution in Maryland. More than 8 in 10 Marylanders now live in counties that do not meet federal clean-air standards for ozone, in large part because of tailpipe emissions from gas and diesel-powered vehicles. If we continue on our this trajectory, the state will be 1 million passenger cars worth of pollution above our state’s climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas pollution 40 percent by 2030. Using a 1960s approach to solving our state’s congestion issues — investing in more highway infrastructure — is only going to exacerbate the problem by encouraging more people to drive, resulting in more toxic air pollution, more cancers and respiratory illnesses and more damage to our environment while only temporarily addressing congestion.

Roughly three in four voters support moving in a different direction. Our state needs innovative, environmentally sustainable ways to solve transportation problems and prevent them from becoming worse, not band-aids to cover up the systemic, car-centric problem underneath. We need a regional transportation system that is multi-modal and invests in more public transportation and complete streets with safe pathways for walking and biking. More buses need dedicated lanes to get more people to their destinations faster, which would encourage more riders and increase fare receipts. We need state, city and county transit systems to interconnect, coordinate schedules and provide system-wide ticketing to provide greater efficiencies and generate savings that could be invested in new transit. Doing this would attract more riders because they would get where they want to go faster and at less cost. We need more investment in smart growth, including transit-oriented development, with state grants available to accelerate environmentally sustainable development and revitalization. All this is possible today if the state would take a 21st-century approach to transportation that focuses more on moving people and protecting our environment and less on building more highway infrastructure to move more cars faster.

The threat of new, substantial highway expansion is real. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is actively promoting a plan that would cost up to $11 billion to expand the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, which would result in hundreds of miles of new lanes. The proposal calls for the toll lanes to be paid for by what would be the largest public-private partnership for highways in North America. The governor also wants to add four toll lanes to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. A state plan to add another bridge across the Chesapeake Bay (that inevitably would be packed with cars) without studying its climate impact would also be a grave mistake, especially because of pronounced impacts of sea level rise on the Eastern Shore, where the sea level is rising while the land is subsiding.

Hogan has publicly stated that he considers climate change a priority, and, to his credit, he supported funding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and construction of the Purple Line and is a member of a Climate Alliance made up of governors who have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris agreement.

Unfortunately, proceeding with the governor’s proposals for massive highway expansion and a third Bay Bridge without determining their likely impact on climate change would be foolhardy and call into question his commitment to protecting our environment. To understand the full environmental impact of his proposals, the General Assembly needs to pass the Transportation Climate Accountability Act (SB 788 and HB 695), which would ensure that the state determines exactly how large transportation projects would contribute near and long-term to greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and stormwater runoff that pollutes our waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay, before vendors are selected to start pouring concrete.

Hogan has a major opportunity to transform Maryland’s transportation system into one that is modern, reliable, multi-modal and regional and that serves the needs of all residents in an environmentally sustainable manner. To help ensure this is happening, no major transportation project should be undertaken without first determining its impact on climate change and seriously considering whether the project is taking the state in the right direction. Expanding highways and building another bay bridge is, in my mind, not how we should be devoting our time, money and energies.

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