Transportation is now the sector most responsible for the carbon emissions that cause climate change and exacerbate extreme weather. And tailpipe pollution exposes communities of color disproportionately to harmful toxins, causing asthma, heart problems and even premature death.

Yet, transportation is still critical to reach jobs, education, health care and other services. In Baltimore, communities of color continue to be stranded from economic opportunity and social mobility due to decades of discriminatory land use and transportation planning decisions, including the Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to cancel the Red Line project.


Several states and across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic — including Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia — and Washington, D.C., have committed to developing a regional climate policy to curb transportation sector emissions and invest in a modern, clean transportation future. The real driver seems to be curbing climate emissions, but the effort also presents a major opportunity to address mobility access and air pollution for transit-underserved and pollution-burdened neighborhoods.

The question is: Will states prioritize the communities that most need transportation service and communities overburdened by transportation pollution?

The Georgetown Climate Center estimated that a cap-and-invest policy could raise $3 billion to $6 billion per year for states across the region. In a cap-and-invest system, states set an annual cap on emissions. Polluters are required to obtain “allowances,” which are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Each year, the cap declines, requiring reductions in carbon emissions and costs for polluters who don’t clean up their act. States then can use the money generated from polluter pockets to invest in making the transition to a modern, reliable, affordable and clean transportation system.

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A similar program exists for the electric sector, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). While the program has reduced carbon emissions and saves consumers money across the region, the program’s investments have benefited primarily whiter, wealthier communities. At the community level, lower-income communities and communities of color have not seen the same benefits. When those with the most privilege reap the greatest benefits, existing disparities are exacerbated, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

States are still developing the details of the program for transportation, so there’s a chance to get it right this time. A smarter approach to tackling emissions and ensuring fair access to a clean, modern transportation system would be to prioritize the needs of both pollution-burdened communities, where air emissions are highest, and “transit deserts,” where neighborhoods lack affordable, reliable transportation to jobs and services.

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The policy should prioritize investment dollars to benefit underserved and overburdened neighborhoods. And project investments should be evaluated not on what is most cost-effective on the narrow basis of carbon emission reductions, but rather on a broader set of criteria, seeking to maximize co-benefits to human health, good job creation, reduced transportation costs for low-income families and increased mobility for isolated communities. Dedicated funds should also be provided for job training for low-opportunity youth, reentry populations and impacted workers, as well as community-led projects that are developed by residents themselves.

Environmental racism and inequality is as human-made as the climate crisis. That means we can correct the errors. Will it take more than one policy to get there? Absolutely. But we must ensure there are specific guardrails and provisions included in any climate or transportation program to achieve fair and positive outcomes for those communities that have been left behind.

Building a clean, modern transportation system is a must for everyone. We must start with those who need it the most.

Michelle Romero (Twitter: @michelledreams2) is the national director of Green For All, a Dream Corps program founded by media personality Van Jones to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. Samuel Jordan (samuel.jordan@msn.com) is co-founder and president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, a transit equity group of community economic development advocates in West Baltimore who helped to lead the development of the Red Line project and advocate for #MoreTransitEquity.