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Vermont remains a supporter of the Transportation and Climate Intiative, but has yet to fully join the multi-state program.

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The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) on Thursday announced it had reached agreement on a model rule for states to follow in determining how to measure and cap carbon dioxide emissions, the same way the Northeast did with power plant emissions years ago. It’s part of a regional effort to reduce emissions and fuel the transition from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles.

But it remains an open question whether Vermont and other states that initially supported the plan will formally join Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and possibly Connecticut and Rhode Island, in a full commitment to the plan. Vermont and seven other states remain on the sidelines, contributing to the initiative but yet to fully join.

Supporters say TCI, which will establish emissions caps and auction them to fuel suppliers, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide funds to be used in modernizing transportation. They note that transportation makes up 40 percent of Vermont’s greenhouse gasses, and that reducing tailpipe emissions will benefit public health.

Opponents have said that effectively makes TCI a gasoline tax, because suppliers will pass along the increased cost to consumers, and others are concerned that it’s regressive — assessed without regard to means or affordability.

Meanwhile, the amount of carbon dioxide detected in the atmosphere hit a record high last month at an observatory at Mauna Loa, in Hawaii.

REGIONAL PLAN

TCI stems from an agreement reached by 13 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic jurisdictions in 2018, committing to the concept of a regional carbon emissions cap to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the transition to electric vehicles. It dropped to 12 when New Hampshire dropped out in 2019, as Republican Gov. Chris Sununu called it an “expensive boondoggle.”

But when it came time to commit last December, most of those states, including Vermont, remained on the sidelines. Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia are also in wait-and-see mode.

If implemented, TCI says, the program would cap carbon dioxide emissions and require fuel suppliers to purchase “allowances” for the amount of carbon emissions their fuel produces. That cap would grow smaller over time, leading to emission reductions, and the states would invest the allowance auction proceeds into clean transit programs. By 2032, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia could see up to $230 million in health benefits and another $60 million in safety benefits from the program, TCI says. Estimates of how much gas prices would climb as a result vary; TCI says they would increase by 5 cents, while opponents say the increase would be greater.

The Vermont Legislature did not take up proposals on joining TCI during the just-completed session. Now, with states starting to consider their involvement in the plan — Massachusetts is moving forward while the Rhode Island and Connecticut legislatures are debating whether to fully join — Vermont, like the majority of states that showed interest, remains in wait and see mode.

In December, when states had to make their decision, Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, said that despite the governor’s understanding of transportation as a key source of Vermont emissions, he remained concerned about increasing costs, especially for rural Vermonters with limited access to public transportation.

GO IT ALONE?

There are three ways Vermont could join the TCI, according to Peter Walke, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state’s contact person for the initiative: Gov. Phil Scott could formally join, the Legislature could pass a bill directing the state to join, or the Vermont Climate Council, founded by last year’s Global Warming Solutions Act, could make joining TCI part of the Climate Action Plan it must submit by Dec. 1.

“Vermont will remain engaged in the program development process while continuing to monitor ongoing and expected activity both in Washington D.C. and in-state,” the Agency of Natural Resources says on its TCI page. “This will enable Vermont to inform the ongoing development of the program, so that if in the future Vermont decides to join, the program will match Vermont-specific considerations.”

The state did exactly that by providing input on the model rule, Walke said.

“We have remained a part of the policy development process, including the development of the model rule,” he said. “Until we sign the [memorandum of understanding] or signal participation in TCI in another way, we will not take an official position on the rule.”

At the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, senior strategist Tom Hughes said TCI “certainly demonstrates the challenges of trying to move forward regionally, but it’s been done before. And we can’t control what other states do.”

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“At the end of the day, TCI is good policy and will benefit Vermonters regardless of how many other states join the initiative,” Hughes said. “We should join because it will help improve Vermont’s transportation system – and we’ll get back more than we put in.

This past week, the Democrat-controlled Connecticut Legislature declined to include TCI in its fiscal 2022 budget package — despite the support of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, who formally committed the state in December. Republicans in the Nutmeg State are firmly opposed, and some have warned that the proposed system of smaller emissions caps could lead to gasoline shortages in the region.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Legislature has taken up bills that would formally commit the Ocean State to the initiative. Passage could come in the fall according to Hank Webster, the Rhode Island director of the Acadia Center, a non-profit advocacy group.

If other states continue to balk at joining TCI, should Vermont join anyway?

House Transportation Committee member Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington 2-1, is skeptical about that scenario.

“My concern was having enough states involved,” Corcoran said. “It seemed at the time Vermont and maybe Massachusetts were at the forefront. Now it seems like other states are petering out ... That was the whole point — generating more money for states.”

But Robb Kidd, the Vermont Chapter Conservation Representative for the Sierra Club, said failing to join could leave Vermont paying higher prices at the pump without reaping the benefits. “But even if that is isn’t the case, yes, the reality is, we’re transitioning. And we’ve got to figure out how to transition as quickly as possible to meet our climate goals that are part of the Global Warming Solutions Act,” Kidd said.

EQUITY CONCERNS

The TCI model rule, released this week, sets forth how carbon dioxide emissions will be calculated, reported and verified.

The rule also incudes a commitment to invest not less than 35 percent of proceeds from the auction “to ensure that overburdened and underserved communities benefit equitably from clean transportation projects and programs.”

Kidd and State Rep. Mollie S. Burke, P-Windham 2-2, said those funds could be used to support a pair of programs boosted by federal funding in this year’s transportation bill: the Mileage Smart program, which provides incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles, and the Replace My Ride Program, which offers assistance in replacing older, less fuel-efficient vehicles with more efficient options.

“We believe a well-designed program can boost our economy, reduce climate emission, and address inequities in our transportation systems,” VIPRIG says on its website.

Is directing 35 percent of auction revenues to address equity enough? That was one of the reasons the national Sierra Club in December announced it could not endorse TCI. An updated position from the club reflecting the model rule is due next week, Kidd said Friday.

Noting a legislative proposal in Massachusetts that would direct 70 percent of the state’s carbon auction share directly to marginalized community programs, Kidd said he wants to see the same percentage dedicated to lower and moderate income programs in Vermont.

Kidd pointed to a study conducted last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which suggested rural communities would see significant savings of between $1,900 and $2,800 by switching to electric vehicles, as proof of why such an investment would pay off.

“That’s why we’re asking for 70 percent of revenues to be generated towards lower and moderate income programs — not just like to help more wealthy individuals access electric vehicles,” Kidd said.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.