Apr 23, 2021
Today, Crystal is joined by Seattle University’s Institute for Public Service professor Marco Lowe to discuss the state of the transportation and climate bills that are still in play in the final days of this legislative session. They talk about cap-and-trade, how climate and transportation policy questions are vital to considerations of equity in our society, and what investments in infrastructure need to be made as we move toward a sustainable future.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Why We Can’t Support a Transportation Package that Leaves Us Behind https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/04/01/op-ed-why-we-cant-support-a-transportation-package-that-leaves-us-behind/
Advocates push Washington state lawmakers to spend more on transit, pedestrian projects https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/advocates-push-washington-state-lawmakers-to-spend-more-on-transit-pedestrian-projects/
Five Ways Senator Hobbs’ Transportation Package Is Truly Backward https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/04/12/five-ways-senator-hobbs-transportation-package-is-truly-backward/
The future of WA transportation
hinges on carbon pricing debate
Gaslighter: When A Climate Commitment Act Is Not Climate Action (Op-ed) https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/04/05/gaslighter-when-a-climate-commitment-act-is-not-climate-action-op-ed/
California re-evaluating its landmark climate strategy https://calmatters.org/environment/2020/06/california-climate-strategy-cap-trade/
We will keep our promise, cap and
trade will not
California's landmark cap-and-trade policy faces growing claims of environmental racism https://www.registerguard.com/story/news/2020/12/29/californias-landmark-cap-and-trade-policy-facing-backlash-from-environmental-racism/4064871001/
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work, with behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. Today, we're continuing our Friday almost-live shows where we review the news of the week with a cohost. Welcome back to the program friend of the show and today's co-host Professor at Seattle University's Institute for Public Service and a wonderful, insightful, excellent person, Marco Lowe.
Marco Lowe: [00:00:50] Crystal, thank you for having me. I'm always excited to be on the show.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:55] Thank you - always excited to have you on the show, always excited to be in whatever space we are in. So I actually wanted to kick this off by talking about this last little bit in the legislative session. We only have a few days left, literally a few days, and there are some pieces of legislation, big pieces of legislation, that are still up in the air. And the Transportation Package, which is iffy if that's going to happen, it's looking like that's doubtful, but also legislation following the State vs Blake Supreme Court decision that effectively decriminalized simple possession of drugs, substances. And also climate legislation, specifically the Climate Commitment Act.
So probably just starting out with the Transportation Package, what are you hearing about where that's at?
Marco Lowe: [00:01:53] It's fighting an uphill battle and it really has the last 20 years. We've seen a coalition of both tax-sensitive conservatives and then environmentalists very sensitive to climate change that don't like big highway packages. So you have that. And then you'll have the Washington State Department of Transportation facing declining revenue as people drive less, cars are more efficient, and all these pesky EVs on the road aren't using any gasoline at all - so gas tax revenue is down. So despite the immovable force and the unstoppable object, or I think I reversed that, I think that we just - we're running out of time for any deal to get made for it to get out, by my measure.
Crystal Fincher: [00:02:31] Yeah. And it looks like leaders in the legislature are also indicating that there just might not be enough time left and saying, Frankly, it looks really doubtful that they're going to achieve a package. And this tension between, on the one side, certainly, we'll talk about the climate legislation in a little bit, but really saying, Hey, if we are going to be serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, if we're serious about climate change and reducing all pollutants in our environment, we can't continue to support more cars on the road and doing the same thing. We have to stop building and expanding roads. We have to stop relying on dirty transportation, because that is actually - accounts for the majority of the pollution that we're experiencing. So how do you - do you see that as being a realistic possibility to say, You know what? We are - we have to kind of put this car in reverse and say that we can't keep expanding and building highways.
Marco Lowe: [00:03:38] That's a great question. I think we are at a point where there has to be an extra voice at the table - meaning you will get highway expansion, but here's the carbon neutrality or carbon negative - when does the EV mandate take hold, or we're going to do land use decisions so that people aren't driving as far. Until that comes into the discussion, I really feel like it's going to be hard to justify this expansion of our highway system. And I would throw in there, and this sounds like an anecdote, but I think it is an issue. The work in Tacoma is well over a decade now, and it looks like it's still far from completion and half the state passes through there probably once or twice a year, if not much more often. That is a hard thing for WSDOT and the legislature to say, This is our current success, that'll be our next. I understand government and transportation is hard. I'm not at all mocking them, but to see that project continue at this length, I think undermines the argument, Let's do more.
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:41] It absolutely does, and I'm right there with you. These projects are hard and complicated, certainly not simple. They are working - those workers are working very hard. They have good intentions, but my goodness, there are - when you look at things that impact voters on a daily basis. And being stuck in that Tacoma traffic in the middle of all of the construction, and the rerouted roads, and the confusion that that causes, and the extra traffic that creates, it certainly is a challenge. And people feel it and they're tired of it. And it is hard to continue to make the case and to continue to talk about why we need increased taxes to support the same thing, if people aren't actually feeling a benefit, and if anything, they're feeling inconvenienced and hassled by it.
Marco Lowe: [00:05:33] Yeah, I mean, we're literally at a place in America now where we have to decide - what are we going to be? Because if we continue to grow out and need roads to move people in, is that working? I mean, we're really the cultural experiment. I mean, China has done some of this and seen similar results in terms of traffic, but many nations wouldn't allow the structure to be built the way we would around single-occupancy vehicles. They would do more on trains, mass transit, or just density. And I think that discussion is going to crash into this as well. And frankly, it already has in many ways.
Crystal Fincher: [00:06:08] Yeah, it has. And I do think that there are a lot of people, even in the policy world, even among legislators, that actually haven't grappled with the fact that although we are very reliant on cars, that that trend doesn't look like it's just escalating forever. In fact, it looks like people, especially after the pandemic, 'cause this was a thing before the pandemic - that it was looking like, Hey, these sky high projections for cars are not quite accurate. People aren't driving that much. And certainly after the pandemic, when people see reliable alternatives to commuting every day and that this is possible - expecting that we need to continue to build out highways to move people and that's our only option and the best use of those funds, seems real questionable.
Marco Lowe: [00:06:58] Yeah. You know, it really is. As a community, this discussion is playing out and it has always been about land use being married to transportation, but we're finally having everybody in the same room. And maybe this stall of this legislation allows interim work to come back next year, 'cause you also saw legislation this year that talked about growth, the Growth Management Act, and is climate change a filter that needs to be part of it. And vehicle miles traveled were part of that.
The other odd statistic is that even before EVs took off - going back 10 years, vehicle miles traveled were dropping. And I don't think I've ever read why, but all these plans for revenue kept going up and up and up and you kept watching miles traveled flatten. And that has continued, you know, COVID accelerated it. But I just don't think we're Texas, and I don't think Texas necessarily wants to be Texas. So if the car isn't the focus of how we live, what is the next model?
Crystal Fincher: [00:08:01] Yeah, certainly. And also, further centering the importance of accessibility for everyone. And there are people who, for a variety of reasons, can't drive, shouldn't drive, don't drive. And to suggest that we are building a system around the assumption that someone should be driving, without considering that we should be making this system accessible for people - whether they're biking, or on transit, or walking - and that that should be as safe and convenient as driving.
And just in an economic conversation, cars are not cheap. Owning a car is not cheap. And to suggest, especially in this economy while people are going through this, that that's a cost that we should, as a society, effectively force on people because of how we've designed our communities and our roads, really is a question of equity and of just economy. This is taking money out of people's pockets that could be spent on local businesses, that could be spent in other ways. And so just making it more possible for people to work near home, to be able to walk to work, take transit to wherever they're going, or to just enjoy themselves. We have to get beyond the conversation of, Hey, people need cars to get to work. We need more parking. We need more cars. We need more freeways. Because that does not account for the majority of the population. And especially as we have a larger percentage of our population aging, growing older, and being more reliant on transit, and not being able to drive everywhere all the time. I feel that we definitely have to get beyond it.
Marco Lowe: [00:09:53] $8,000 a year is the average price for somebody owning a car - with insurance, paying off the car, and gasoline - average. If that - if anybody gets that back into their lives, not only is that a dramatic, positive influence on their own personal finances, but think of the local economy. Instead of money being shipped to wherever oil is produced, which is not Washington state, last time I checked, or where coal is generated in Montana, everything stays local for both energy in your house, which would be cheaper to renewables and cars, not having a car. I mean, it's a dramatic plus to our local economy.
Crystal Fincher: [00:10:27] Yeah. And a related set of policies - everything, you know, is related and impacts everything else. This really does fall into the climate policy discussion. And what is currently on the table and moving through the legislature right now, the Climate Commitment Act, SB 5126, Senate bill 5126. That, you know, it looks iffy whether or not it's going to pass, and there are certainly a number of challenges that the legislation has. There, you know, has its share of supporters and more than its share of people who oppose it. And so, is that going to be enough to stop this piece of legislation that has been championed by Reuven Carlyle in the Senate, Joe Fitzgibbon in the House, and certainly Governor Inslee.
Marco Lowe: [00:11:24] You know, it's an amazing moment that you think back to even three or four sessions - that we had such open, bold legislation on climate. It just didn't exist. So the space that is created is wonderful. I think there's a lot of debate around how we're going to do it, which is also healthy. There are those who are - we're going to ratchet down emissions, we're going to do costs and fees and trading. And then there's also just a very blunt instrument, which we've seen in many places. The grid shall be, have no carbon in it at this date. Cars will only be sold that are electric on this date. And this is what we're really seeing - the philosophical debate - should it be just a mandate that the market will move to? Or are we going to tinker with the market to try to bring out the outcomes that we hope to see? And to be honest with you, it looks like the mandates are winning. Last session, we passed a date - I think 2040, 2045 - when our grid, every electron has to be carbon-free. And then this session, we saw a really tough legislation for 2030, that cars will all be EVs. Yet we're seeing cap and trade and carbon tax bills stalling.
Crystal Fincher: [00:12:27] Right. And that is a big question, really on the table, is there seems to be broad agreement that a price needs to be attached to carbon. And the question is how. And on top of that is - is that, is a price on carbon, in and of itself enough to reduce emissions. And really, it looks like both in theory and in practice, the answer is there has to be regulation in addition to the price on carbon, in order to ensure that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That the price in and of itself won't do it, but that when you do attach a price, that can actually fund investments into our systems to enable a more systemic and broad-based approach to decarbonization economy-wide and system-wide.
Marco Lowe: [00:13:18] Yeah and it's interesting, though, because when you - a lot of the Econ classes you take - if something costs more, you'll use less. And there are products that don't always match that. One is cigarettes were very hard. They did, it did work - you finally went so high but I don't think, as a society, we're even willing to price gas so high that people can dramatically use less. And is that equitable? Who are we pointing at now? We just talked about people having to live far out, because when everybody moved back into the cities, it priced people out. When you talk about that more too in a different show, but we - people are now dependent on cars and we're going to increase the price and then look at them like, why are you complaining? We need to, in my opinion, set a date, move towards it in an equitable fashion. And I think right now we have so many competing ideas, sometimes it's the ideas that are losing sight of what is the impact on the average person.
Crystal Fincher: [00:14:12] I agree with that. And I also think that we are dealing with a - almost really, an artificial deadline, brought on by the real deadline of the end of this session in the legislature - that has really abbreviated the ability for legislators to completely fully examine the effect of these policies elsewhere. Cap and trade has been implemented in California and has been plagued with problems. In fact, the governor there just announced a review of the system month before last, and their EPA director said that there was no way that it was going to be able to achieve its goals.
And so, certainly looking at the challenges in that system - in theory, the cap and trade system on paper looks wonderful. It looks like it should work. If everyone behaves rationally, and does what they should do, and is just motivated by purity and good intentions and thoughts - which we certainly always ascribe to big oil. Which is who we're dealing with here. And that is the challenge. It has been - what has been required to gain their support in the legislative process that has been the poison pill to passing a policy that actually has a chance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Marco Lowe: [00:15:31] Yes. And you're still setting up a situation where oil companies can operate. And I think the two things they have in droves are talent and money. And if they are, I believe, if they are given a hard stop date, that talent and money will now flow to how they survive, because the first goal of any organization is to survive. Whereas instead, when you set up a system that they can operate within, then their focus will be how do they operate within it and under current business models. So I totally support legislators looking at economic tools and that's wonderful, but if a hard stop is at the end of the road, I think within the boardroom of these oil companies, there is a different discussion as well.
Crystal Fincher: [00:16:11] Yeah. I agree with that. And this system that we're setting up and linking to California, as the legislation is currently designed, is challenging. And it looks like attempts to even mitigate some of the factors that have been so harmful or counterproductive in California, are also stalling in the legislature because of disagreement between the House and the Senate on what each feels is acceptable. In our Senate - you know, Democrats are in charge of both chambers, but House Democrats are, as a whole, on average, more progressive than Democrats in the Senate. And that has colored how this legislation has been designed.
So as this package, which was passed out of the Senate, was created, there were a number of offsets and allowances and accommodations to large corporations and those who are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, in order to gain their approval and acceptance. And also to gain the votes of some of the more conservative or moderate Democrats, conservative Democrats - different people would describe them differently - but of say, Senator Hobbs, Senator Mullet, certainly on that end. And so there were a lot of giveaways given.
And one of the issues with cap and trade is that - there is a level of current pollution and they're saying that's a cap. And over time, we are going to reduce that cap and ratchet it down, and everyone is going to have to stay under that cap. Except for when they have an allowance. An allowance is kind of like a pollution credit, that allows them to pollute above the cap without a penalty. If they don't have an allowance, they get a fine. If they do have an allowance, they can pollute. It's permitted, everything is fine. And so they give out these allowances to different companies and polluters in the system. And they give some of them out for free.
And then the trade part of it is - they allow big polluters and companies to buy from others who are not using them. So, Hey, Company A - small business, they have a few allowances. They've done a good job of electrifying their fleet. They are not going to be polluting much. They have these extra allowances, or pollution credits, saved up. BP comes along and says, You know what? We actually would rather just buy those pollution credits over there, rather than reduce our emissions, which are the majority of emissions in the system right now. So they buy those from Company A, they also buy them from Companies B-Z, and they build a gargantuan stockpile of these pollution credits. So big - which don't expire, or take forever to expire - that effectively allow them to continue polluting above the cap for a decade beyond when the cap starts to lower. And really defeats the purpose of this cap.
We've seen that in California, where pollution actually increased after their cap and trade program was implemented, because of the glut of credits and allowances in their system, which caused some of the proponents who initially championed the passage - and to be fair, everyone was excited about cap and trade initially, because it did look so promising on paper. It was just when it was implemented and seeing the effect of allowing the allowances in the system, allowing companies to buy them, not having the expiration attached to it - just really created an incentive to continue polluting that companies, predictably, took. And so we have not gotten to the point where greenhouse gases have reduced on their own. Certainly the pandemic and everyone stopping commuting to work had a positive effect, but as for the cap and trade program, that hasn't been impactful there.
And so that's really what we're facing here - is to say, are we going to go down that same road? Are we going to try and mitigate some of those effects? Senate package didn't really do much to mitigate some effects. House package - when it first moved through the Environmental Committee, made some progress and actually did start to address some of those issues. And then it looks like, word came from the Senate saying, Hey, we're going to lose those conservative Senators that are now Yeses. If we allow their pals at BP to continue to pollute - you're trying to stop that - you're going to lose their votes, so why don't you go ahead and roll back those changes that you made in the House. Thank you very much. And just give us basically the bill that we handed to you. You know, dress it up a little bit on the edges, but don't substantively change what we gave you, which created the problems in California.
In fact, we go further and one of the scariest things about the bill, and one of the biggest problems, is that not only do we not have those allowances expire, we don't limit the number of allowances that people can stockpile, but we also pre-empt other legislation to address carbon reduction. We pre-empt SEPA review, or the ability to review new projects for their impact on the environment and require mitigation or correction. And we are also now pre-empting the Clean Air Act for companies that opt into this. So in effect, we're saying, Hey, just hop into this program. You know, you can buy your pollution credits, stockpile those. You'll be good for awhile. And you know what? We got your back - we'll prevent you from being able to be regulated from any other entity in the state. So predictably, BP is like, I'm all in, gimme some of this. I want some of this. And a lot of other people are raising red flags saying, Okay, pause for a second. We can do better than this.
And unfortunately right now, we're at the - coming up on the end of session, just a few days left. And legislators are trying to get up to speed on this legislation overall. And they've been working in their committees on all the other legislation that they've been passing and doing good work. And now they have the opportunity to say, Okay, these few bills are on the table. What is this even about? And this isn't easy legislation to get up to speed on in a couple days, which is what they've been tasked with. So the question is, are they going to ram this through, when a lot of legislators are saying, We're still trying to wrap our heads around this. Joe Fitzgibbon, I think Speaker Jinkins, have said, This is a heavy lift, trying to get all of our members up to speed on this, in a way where they can confidently vote in, at that time I think there was five days left. So that's a big question. Where do you see this going?
Marco Lowe: [00:23:31] You know, I think you laid it out perfectly and it's very similar to the Transportation Package. How much can you get done in the very finite time that we have? And it sounds even more complex than the transportation question, because at least we've been working on that for a couple of decades, had to navigate this path. So it's going to - boy, it looks like an uphill fight to get this through this year. I'm sure it'll be a lot of interim work.
One little quick thing I'll throw out there that was really interesting this week. As we talk about - it's an energy transition, it's a societal transition - and change is hard. The coal miners union supported President Biden's infrastructure plan, looking at the opportunity for them to go forward into a new economy and new jobs, rather than staying in what is also a very dangerous job. It pays them well, did not require a college degree, two words I love to have married together, but, I would rather see my children working on a solar field than deep underground, breathing that air, and frankly, with those machines as well.
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:36] Yeah, I completely agree with that. And I think there is a big conversation to be had and one that, certainly that a lot of legislators in the House talked about, is this focus on - we're talking about this revenue for infrastructure projects. We really are at a crossroads. We have a limited amount of time that we can meaningfully mitigate the impacts of climate change and start to turn this around. And we now have a greater understanding than we ever have about the effects of all types of pollution on lifespan and health, and this is directly attributed to kids having asthma and heart disease and lung disease. And do we want to continue to invest in projects that further that, or should we be looking to a new economy?
And there's a whole just economic conversation to be had. Are we going to invest in building more of an infrastructure with limited future and limited job prospects, or move into a new economy with different kinds of investments, using different tools that create a number of jobs, and be the innovators in the sector? In this country, we have been innovators before in different areas and have built jobs and industries around that. And have been global leaders in several areas, and people feeling like there's an opportunity to do that here. And if we're going to make massive investments, multi-billion dollar investments, should it be an investment that is going to provide a greater return, or one where we're kind of throwing good money after bad? So big conversations to be had.
Marco Lowe: [00:26:26] Wow. Well phrased.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:28] And I hope we move in the right direction. Certainly, this is part of a conversation where a lot of these people making these decisions don't have to consider, or some do, but they aren't going to be around. And, you know, we aren't going to be around that much longer, but looking at the world that our kids and our grandkids are going to be living in. And them saying, Hey, you're putting this on our backs right now. Please don't make it any harder than you already have. And certainly we have made it hard for them. So, I feel like there is a responsibility to really have this conversation fully, and to take the time to make sure that we do this right. And to really invest. This doesn't have to be a conversation where, you where - well, we either spend it on coal mines or nothing. We do have alternatives. Let's examine and invest in those alternatives.
Marco Lowe: [00:27:32] I completely agree. This is the major question before us, and it's amazing how it's a thread running through the legislation we've talked about today.
Crystal Fincher: [00:27:40] Yeah. I mean, you know, what we're really talking about - infrastructure and investment, which is necessary, absolutely necessary. And yes, we have to fix our bridges and maintain our roads, but we also have to consider how we're using them and what their ultimate function and purpose is. And how we support the world that we want to live in. It doesn't happen without building it today. We have to very intentionally move in that direction. And I hope that there are people who put an increased focus on really defining and achieving that intention.
Marco Lowe: [00:28:21] One thing I want to back up, and bold what you just said, because it's worth saying again - is that, it is infrastructure, but it is also about people. And I know there's a lot of memes about what is infrastructure. And there were jokes on Twitter recently about it, but the reality is - all the infrastructure does come back to people. And how does it serve people? So what environment, what society, what community, what physical space, are we choosing for people to live it? And that really is an intersectional discussion that is, I think, especially with the hesitancy and the vibrant debate around these bills, is coming to the fore.
Crystal Fincher: [00:28:57] Yeah, absolutely. And so we could talk about a lot more today, but we're coming up on time. So I, you know, there probably isn't just a better place to pause and end this segment for today. But I just want to thank you for joining, and thank you for having this conversation. I mean, there's certainly conversations that are complex and that lots of legislators and policy makers are diving into this. But you said it right - this is really about people. This is about the future that we want to have, and the quality of life that we are setting ourselves and our kids and our grandkids up for. And we have some really important choices to make. And I hope we make the right choices and we continue to hold our elected officials and those in positions of power accountable for making those choices and continue to let them know how all of us are impacted.
So with that, I want to thank everyone for listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM this Friday, April 23rd, 2021. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. And our wonderful cohost today is Professor at Seattle University's Institute for Public Service, Marco Lowe. You can find Marco on Twitter @MarcoLowe that's, M-A-R-C-O-L-O-W-E. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. And now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. And if you want to, leave a review - that actually really helps. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks and Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes. So thanks for tuning in and we'll talk to you next time.