Pennsylvania lawmakers debate participating in regional transportation, climate program

Pennsylvania
Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, testifies before the House Appropriations Committee in Harrisburg. (Pennsylvania House of Representatives courtesy photo)

HARRISBURG (The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s preliminary participation in a regional program that calls for greater strides toward a clean energy economy and a reduction in carbon emissions in the transportation sector went under the microscope as lawmakers weighed in on the effort.

Two state Senate panels – Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and the Transportation Committee – held a joint meeting this week and took testimony on issues linked to the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, and Yassmin Gramian, acting secretary of the Department of Transportation, each said the agencies they helm have been involved in discussions related to the TCI, a collaborative exercise between a dozen Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.

Gramian said PennDOT views a number of technological innovations as key drivers to achieving the core objectives in TCI. She pointed to electric vehicles and shared mobility models as examples.

“It is critical that we remain willing to examine how to best support sustainable transportation in an ever-changing world,” Gramian said in her testimony to the joint panel. “PennDOT looks forward to proactively continuing conversations on investing in a safe, clean and robust modern transportation system.”

McDonnell in his testimony said the state DEP adamantly believes there is a close correlation between past and present transportation practices and the impact it has on the environment.

“The transportation sector, especially from passenger vehicles, is a major source of the greenhouse gases driving climate change,” McDonnell said. “The administration is dedicated to addressing greenhouse gas emissions … and is looking to TCI as a possible way to address vehicle pollution.”

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While Pennsylvania officials have been involved in cursory conversations with TCI representatives, the state has not officially joined in the effort. Participating in the initiative, and implementing its practices, would come at a cost, which led to questions of how such an endeavor would be funded.

Neither Gramian nor McDonnell said they were proposing an increase in the state gas tax to fund joining TCI. Pennsylvania’s gas tax is the second-highest in the nation, second only to California.

McDonnell said other methods, such as an emission fee charged to retailers, distributors and prime suppliers could be one method of funding some of the proposals gleaned out of TCI.

During deliberations, a number of lawmakers on one of the two panels said they were concerned state residents inevitably would face steeper fees when they go to the pump, pointing out costs could be passed on to consumers.

The two-hour meeting also led to a big-picture debate about the validity of climate change and global warming.

“I have grave concerns of this, from the get-go,” state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg, said of some of the urgent concerns raised about weather occurrences in recent years. “It’s hyperbole, and it’s nonsense. What I see here is an environmental Ponzi scheme.”

But other lawmakers involved in the discussion, including state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Doylestown, said they believed the environment is being adversely impacted by current-day practices on the road.

“The fact of the matter is global warming is an existential threat,” Santarsiero said. “(TCI) is, I think rightly, something we have to consider.”

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Reporting by Dave Fidlin

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The Center Square -- formerly known as Watchdog.org and the Illinois News Network -- and their reporters represent 18 states across the United States as the taxpayers' watchdog, exposing the way government really works.

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