NOT MANY Virginians are aware that last year, the commonwealth signaled its intention to join the Transportation Climate Initiative, a coalition of 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia, whose stated goal is “to transition to a more sustainable, resilient, lower carbon transportation sector that provides their residents with more transportation options, improved air quality and public health, and economic opportunity.”
While that sounds reasonable enough, a just-released study by the nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy described TCI as “a cap-and-trade scheme for automobile emissions.” TCI member states would cap regional greenhouse gas emissions from trucks and automobiles and impose a “carbon tax,” starting at 18 cents on each gallon of gasoline.
But unlike current gas taxes, TCI would actually reduce the current revenue used for road maintenance 20 percent by 2022, the study found, “eventually causing the current gasoline-based revenues to be reduced to zero as gasoline fuel is eliminated.”
The purpose of an escalating carbon tax is to make using gasoline-powered vehicles so expensive to operate that Virginians switch to electric vehicles in order to decrease emissions and therefore stave off global warming. But the “gain” would be an infinitesimal global temperature reduction of just 0.000018 degrees Celsius—a little more than a hundred-thousandth of a degree Celsius by the end of the century, according to the study.
“In sum, TCI has no environmental benefits but would cost Virginians billions. That is an ‘all pain and no gain’ program,” concluded David Schnare, director of TJIPP’s Center for Environmental Stewardship.
Even Fatih Biurol, head of the International Energy Agency, acknowledged that eliminating gas- and diesel-powered vehicles would have a negligible effect on the climate. “Electric cars will not save the climate. That is completely wrong,” he said. “Going from 2 to 300 million electric cars will affect the global greenhouse gas emissions by less than 1 percent. So if you think you can save the climate with electric cars, then you are completely wrong. It will be a modest contribution, but not the solution.”
According to the IEA’s May 2019 Global Electric Vehicle Outlook, an electric car starts out with a carbon deficit due to the amount of pollutants released during the manufacturing process, including the mining of rare earth metals for batteries, that’s greater than emissions produced by the manufacture of internal combustion vehicles. And depending on the source of electricity they use, it could take years for an EV to break even on the carbon front.
Last month, President Trump suspended the federal $7,500 electric vehicle tax subsidy program. After a decade of subsidizing electric vehicles to the tune of $8 billion, they still comprise less than 1 percent of all auto sales nationwide, mostly due to their higher cost and lack of range.
But even electric cars need pavement. Gas taxes don’t cover the cost of road construction and maintenance now, so Virginia needs every cent it collects from drivers to chip away at its billion-dollar transportation deficit. Even Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine admitted last month that “Virginia’s transportation [funding] system is simply not sustainable the way we are going.”
But it would be even more unsustainable under the TCI because, as the TJIPP study noted, over time it would decrease the gas tax revenue that’s used to maintain roads in the commonwealth.
An 18-cent “carbon tax” on top of the 12-cent hike in the gas tax already proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam would raise the state gas tax from its current 17.5 cents a gallon to 47.5 cents a gallon. Besides having a disproportionate effect on low-income residents, a regressive carbon tax would mostly impact Virginians who have to drive long distances to work on congested roads because they can’t afford to live in high-cost areas like Northern Virginia, which describes the majority of long-distance commuters in the Fredericksburg area and rural Virginia.
In a Mason–Dixon poll in December commissioned by the TJIPP, pollsters asked Virginians the following question: “If joining the Transportation Climate Initiative meant an additional tax on automotive gasoline and diesel, starting at 18 cents per gallon and rising higher, while reducing money set aside for road repairs and new road construction, would you support or oppose Virginia joining the Transportation Climate Initiative?”
Statewide, 58 percent of residents in the commonwealth said they would oppose joining the TCI. However, in the Shenandoah/Piedmont section of the commonwealth, which includes the City of Fredericksburg, as well as Stafford, Spotsylvania, King George, Caroline and Culpeper counties, the percentage of poll respondents opposed to joining the TCI increased to 74 percent.
That’s not surprising. Local residents know a bad deal when they see one.