Texas could spend federal funds meant to cut carbon emissions on highway projects

Rush hour traffic on Interstate 35 in downtown Austin on Sept. 7, 2023. The Texas Department of Transportation has drafted a plan to reduce carbon emissions in the state's transportation sector by trying to reduce congestion on Texas roads and highways. (Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune, Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Department of Transportation plans to spend about half a billion federal dollars on projects that the agency says will lessen the amount of climate-warming carbon dioxide emitted into the air.

But environmental and public transportation advocates say the agency’s draft “Carbon Reduction Strategy” is unlikely to substantially cut carbon emissions from the transportation sector, which emits the most greenhouse gasses of any state.

According to the TxDOT draft document, a chunk of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act money will be transferred to a highway program, and the agency says highway expansions could be eligible for the funds because they will reduce congestion, thereby reducing emissions from idling cars.

Harrison Humphreys, a research and policy coordinator at Air Alliance Houston, an environmental advocacy group, said he sees the strategy as doing “the bare minimum” to get the federal dollars and called the document “disappointing.”

TxDOT created the strategy — which outlines the methods by which it plans to cut emissions — to fulfill federal requirements for the money. TxDOT is expected to receive $641 million over five years for transportation projects that cut emissions, the most of any state.

It’s just one piece of the billions of dollars flowing to Texas from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was passed in 2021 and is funding a range of projects, from clean water to high-speed internet.

Texas’ transportation sector creates 215 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in Texas per year, according to the Energy Information Administration’s most recent data from 2021. It’s the second most carbon-polluting sector in Texas after the industrial sector.

Though the $641 million is small in comparison to TxDOT’s more than $30 billion annual budget, experts and environmental advocates noted that the strategy provides new and important insight on how TxDOT thinks about mitigating climate change and whether it’s even an important goal. Texas is eligible to get more money from the Federal Highway Administration’s $6.4 billion Carbon Reduction Program intended to mitigate transportation-related climate emissions than any other state.

The draft strategy doesn’t use the words “climate change” and nor does it state the importance of reducing emissions to avoid worsening effects of climate change. It projects that as the population grows, Texans will keep driving more miles each year over the next four decades.

California’s version of the same document says plainly, “To achieve carbon neutrality, Californians need to drive less.” In Florida, another populous Republican-controlled state, the plan acknowledges that emissions contribute to “environmental changes” including “rising temperatures, heavy rainfall, and extreme weather events.”

Jacob Corvidae, a principal at RMI, an energy transition think tank, said that while the language in the draft might reveal how state agencies are thinking about climate change, “as long as it’s being used for the right thing, I don’t necessarily care about the nomenclature.”

The bigger question, he said, is: “Does this reduce carbon [emissions] or not?”

Others were more critical of the language, arguing that it shows the state’s lack of urgency in addressing climate change. To reduce emissions, “we want people on bikes, walking, and taking public transit instead of driving,” Humphreys said. “And nowhere does TxDOT say that’s the goal.”

About $112 million of the federal money will transfer to one of the state’s federally-funded highway programs. The remaining $529 million will be spent over five years on projects that fall into at least one of seven different categories:

  • Advanced technologies that improve traffic flows, such as traffic signal improvements
  • Travel demand management, such as installing roundabouts
  • Active transportation, which can include building bike lanes and walking paths
  • Transit, such as improving bus stations
  • Construction and maintenance, such as using sustainable pavement and construction materials
  • Alternative fuels, including things like building electric vehicle infrastructure
  • Freight movement, such as constructing “multimodal” facilities or electrifying ports.

Public comments on the draft strategy are due at 5 p.m. Wednesday to TPP_webmail@txdot.gov.

TxDOT, like many other state and federal transportation agencies, has long been criticized by environmental, racial justice and public transportation advocates for an aggressive focus on building and expanding highways over greener methods of transportation like buses or bicycling. Some business groups across the state have generally supported highway expansions — for example, several Austin business groups said they support an expansion of Interstate 35 through the city.

The majority of the agency’s funding is constitutionally dedicated to the construction and maintenance of roads and highways.

Both public transportation and environmental advocates are critical of the agency’s argument that improving traffic flow will reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. Adam Greenfield, board president of Rethink35, a group opposing an I-35 expansion in Austin, called congestion reduction a “stealth way” to continue focusing on expanding highways and other state roads.

And Humphreys, of Air Alliance Houston, said reducing congestion doesn’t provide massive reductions in carbon emissions.

“We just aren’t going to reduce millions of metric tons of emissions by fixing traffic signals,” Humphreys said.

Ryan LaFontaine, a TxDOT spokesperson, said that most major metro areas in Texas have local tax-funded transportation authorities that build public transit in cities, and that much of the agency’s public transportation funding is directed toward smaller rural and urban areas. The agency is also beginning a process to create a statewide active transportation plan, the first draft of which could be available sometime next year.

The draft strategy also includes improvements in bicycling and walking infrastructure and projects that support the use of public transportation, such as pedestrian bridges. But public transportation advocates point out that the money for carbon reduction projects pales in comparison to the billions of dollars spent every year on highway infrastructure.

Disclosure: Air Alliance Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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