Doubling down on climate fraud in Metro’s RTP

Earlier, we branded Portland Metro’s proposed Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) a climate fraud because in falsely claimed the region was reducing greenhouse gases, and falsely claimed its transportation investments were on track to meet adopted state climate goals. Metro’ staff has responded to these critiques, but  proposes only to fix these mistakes at some vague future time, and more importantly, make absolutely no substantive policy or investment changes to the RTP.
In essence, the staff response puts the lie to the claim that climate/GHG reductions are the “controlling measure” in RTP system planning.  Whether Metro is on track to achieve its committed GHG reductions or not has no bearing on any of the substantive policy and spending decisions in the RTP.
Moreover, this is a straightforward violation of the policies enacted in Metro’s 2014 Climate Smart Strategy (and reiterated in the 2018 RTP, and current RTP draft), to continuously monitor progress in GHG reduction and undertake additional measures if we were not making adequate progress.<
Metro staff treats GHG estimates as a perfunctory and irrelevant codicil to the RTP, and continues to rely on fanciful and speculative assumptions about the future vehicle fleet and an extraordinarily aggressive state pricing policy, to allow it to simply ignore taking any further steps to reduce GHG, or stop widening highways.

City Observatory recently published two detailed commentaries examining the climate analysis and policies contained in Portland Metro’s proposed Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).<
The RTP claims that the region is “on track” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as required by state law, and that it can afford to spend more than ten billion dollars on highway widening projects and meet its stated climate objectives.
In reality, transportation greenhouse gases in Portland are increasing, not decreasing, illustrating the failure of existing climate policies; the models Metro uses to estimate future GHG reductions are flawed (based on demonstrably incorrect vehicle age and fleet composition assumptions), and the policies in the RTP do nothing to prioritize policies and investments that would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of its review process, Metro staff has prepared its rejoinder to these comments.  In this commentary, we show that Metro’s analysis ignores many of City Observatory’s  comments, mis-states others, and suggested changes do nothing to correct the deficiencies we identified.

For clarity:  both state law and adopted regional plans call for a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  Oregon law (ORS 468A.205) , and Metro’s adopted 2014 Climate Smart Strategy call for an 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.  The RTP fails to comply with these policies.

Metro:  “Yes, our climate analysis is wrong, but we’re not going to change our policy or spending”

The analysis contained in the RTP mis-states actual trends in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (they are increasing, not decreasing), and falsely claims that the region is on track to meet that legislatively adopted goalMetro acknowledges City Observatory’s comment that it has failed to include accurate GHG inventory information in the RTP, and that transportation GHGs in Portland are increasing, rather than decreasing (as shown by DARTE, DEQ and Multnomah County inventories). It proposes, at some unspecified future time, to include more accurate information on transportation GHGs.<
Specifically Metro says it will “amend” its analysis at an unspecified future date and “discuss the potential impact of these trends on RTP achieving climate targets.” (Metro Staff Response to Comment #210).

Metro’s proposed changes to the RTP labeled “Climate Tools and Analysis”  makes it clear that this will not have any effect on the current RTP, and that corrected inventories and trend analysis will be deferred to an unspecified later date:

“use the updated assumptions as the basis of future climate analysis.”

Elsewhere, the RTP concedes that the region is not on track to meet its Vision Zero safety goals.  The RTP needs to have a definitive statement that the region is not on track to meet its climate goals, either.  And while that’s a necessary first step, the RTP must go further.

Admitting error, but doing nothing to fix it

The issue here is not simply whether the RTP contains correct emissions inventories and trend analyses; The actual issue is that Metro has falsely portrayed the progress (actually backsliding) on transportation emissions. The fact that emissions are increasing demonstrates that adopted measures since the 2014 Climate Smart Strategy are failing, and that much more powerful and effective steps need to be taken to achieve stated Metro and State climate goals. Metro needs to both correct its inventory data, and modify its policies and investments to achieve these greenhouse gas goals. It is not sufficient to simply admit we are going rapidly in the wrong direction; Metro needs to change course. Acknowledging that the inventories and trends are wrong, and doing nothing violates the policy commitment in the CSS to periodically adjust the strategy to reflect actual progress. If the RTP is not on a path to achieving climate targets then the policies and investments contained in the plan need to be changed.

The proposed changes in the “Climate Tools and Analysis” include no substantive changes to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation to compensate for the errors and false assumptions in the RTPs current climate analysis.


As City Observatory pointed out, the climate analysis of the RTP can be summarized briefly as claiming that because the overall RTP is “on track” to meet the 2050 goals, that there is no need or obligation to either prioritize projects and investments that reduce GHGs, or to analyze the GHG increasing impacts of projects, particularly highway expansions. The climate analysis contained in the RTP represents a fraud on the public. Despite labeling greenhouse gas reductions “a controlling measure” in system planning, the RTP fails to achieve adopted state and regional greenhouse gas reduction goals, fails to prioritize expenditures and policies that would put us on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it has pledged, and fails to strengthen its policies or change its investments in light of its demonstrated failure to achieve promised progress.  The climate analysis is not a “controlling measure” if major flaws in the climate analysis don’t immediately necessitate a revision to RTP policies and investments.

A double standard for pricing

As City Observatory has pointed out, road pricing (tolls, road user fees and congestion charges) are an essential component to achieving the RTP’s purported GHG reductions.  But Metro has a blatant double standard for pricing: It assumes that the state will achieve dramatic GHG reductions by enacting widespread pricing (a carbon fee, a very high road user fee, nearly universal congestion pricing on throughways), and yet it fails to incorporate the effects of those pricing measures on the need/justification for billions in highway widening projects. Pricing roadways will reduce or eliminate the need for capacity expansion.  For example, Metro ignores City Observatory’s comment noting that ODOT’s own analysis of Regional Mobility Pricing (RMPP) pricing would obviate the need for additional lanes in the $1.9 billion I-5 Rose Quarter project.

Metro also fails to analyze the negative greenhouse gas effects of major RTP projects. The blatant double standard in the RTP is obvious in the treatment of major capacity projects (the IBR, Rose Quarter and I-205 widening projects). As Metro has acknowledged, adding lane capacity will induce additional travel, and additional greenhouse gas emissions. The only aspects of these projects which moderate or reduce greenhouse gas emissions are the potential tolls that may be used to pay for them. Yet Metro’s RTP fails to acknowledge that tolling/pricing alone would be more effective in both moderating the growth of traffic and reducing GHGs, and would obviate the need for additional capacity. In that same vein, Metro ignores City Observatory’s comment that ODOT’s own analysis procedures manual denies the existence of induced travel and bars use of the scientifically based induced travel calculator.

Whether the state will actually impose high and widespread road pricing as as assumed in the STS and Metro’s climate analysis, or even imposes tolls, for example, on I-205, is still uncertain and speculative. But the RTP commits to building this additional capacity, regardless of whether these GHG (and traffic) reducing measures are actually implemented. An honest and accurate GHG analysis would also show what would happen to regional VMT, GHG and congestion if these speculative and uncertain pricing measures aren’t enacted.

In essence, the RTP pretends it will achieve state GHG goals because of the imaginary and speculative pricing policies described in the State Transportation Strategy (STS). In contrast, the RTP provides a regional commitment to spend billions on freeway widening, which—absent pricing—will certainly make our already bad transportation GHG trajectory much worse.

Hiding behind ODOT’s flawed policies and modeling

City Observatory’s analysis documented the significant deficiencies in the ODOT modeling used to predict future transportation greenhouse gas emissions, and also showed the speculative nature of assumed pricing policies. ODOT’s STS has Metro asserts that the RTP complies with state law and the Climate Smart Strategy because they are consistent with the state’s Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities (CFEC) regulations.

  1. CFEC compliance does not assure that either the Climate Smart Strategy goals or ORS goals are met.
  2. CFEC rules are the minimum required to comply with state land use laws. The state’s GHG gas reduction law and Metro’s own climate smart strategy predate and supercede the CFEC rules.
  3. Nothing in CFEC precludes Metro from doing more to reduce transportation GHG emissions; in fact, Metro’s own Climate Smart Strategy independently commits the region to a larger reduction in VMT and greenhouse gases.

It’s clear that Metro staff are trying to shift the blame for their flawed greenhouse gas analysis to their colleagues at the Oregon Department of Transportation, who developed the State Transportation Strategy (STS), and have prepared their own greenhouse gas estimates.

Failure to correct policies and investments is climate fraud

Metro’s adopted Climate Smart Strategy, adopted nearly a decade ago, committed to monitoring progress and taking additional steps if fell behind.  Metro pledged to monitor transportation greenhouse gas trends, and:

If the assessment finds the region is deviating significantly from the Climate Smart Strategy performance monitoring target, then Metro will work with local, regional and state partners to consider the revision or replacement of policies, strategies and actions to ensure the region remains on track with meeting adopted targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While Metro has acknowledged that it has overstated progress, but is proposing no additional regional actions, no changes in policy, no different investment strategy, despite the demonstrable failure of its current efforts.
Metro staff’s response to comments confirms the toothlessness and irrelevance of the climate commitments in the RTP. The staff admits that the GHG analysis in the RTP is simply wrong—that it ignores trends of increasing transportation greenhouse gases, and that modeling is based on demonstrably flawed assumptions about fleet turnover and composition—and that this means that the region will definitely not meet its climate commitments. But then, in the staff’s view, these errors and failures necessitate no substantive change to the RTP; no imposition of new policies, no shift in investments. The climate analysis is not, in reality, “controlling” in any way of the RTP. Whether the RTP is on track to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets or not matters not at all to the policy substance or investment choices in the RTP. This is simply climate fraud.

Britain’s Caste System of Transportation

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proclaims the primacy of drivers

“We are a nation of drivers”

Those who don’t own cars, or can’t, or choose not to drive, are second class citizens

The transportation culture war is flaring up in Britain.  Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has cancelled the nation’s big high speed rail initiative (HS2), even plowing salt into the ground by pledging to aggressively sell off property acquired for rights-of-way.  But that’s just part of his posturing, like that of Phillips Oil’s “76” brand, to show he’s “on the driver’s side.”

Hot on the heels of the rail cancellation, Sunak prominently issued a Driver’s manifesto, proclaiming that the United Kingdom is “a nation of drivers.”

On Sunday, I slammed the brakes on anti-motorist measures. For many, our car is a lifeline. We use them to get to work or see our family. But too often drivers feel under attack. Our new plan will put drivers back in the driving seat and improve their experience on the road.

A caste system for transportation, and those not in cars are the untouchables

In a “nation of drivers” people who walk, cycle and take transit are non-citizens.

Sunak’s comments lay bare the caste-system of transportation in Britain.  Those wealthy enough and able enough to own and drive cars are in the favored caste.  Those who can’t or choose not to drive, are in the lower-caste untouchable and unimportant.

The “war on cars” strategy is a blatantly political attempt by Sunak, who’s Conservative Party trails badly in polls and which will confront a general election in the next year or so.  It’s evident that campaign advisers have made a cynical calculation that many voters will identify themselves as oppressed victims.  According to UK Census data, though, 17 million Britons live in households that don’t own a car, and such households represent about 22 percent of all UK households.  And even households that own a car frequently include many residents who don’t or can’t drive, and who may choose or want to walk or cycle near their homes.

Phony claims of a “war” on drivers

In addition to cancelling a major rail project, Sunak also has attacked 20 mile per hour speed limits in dense urban neighborhoods calling them “against British values.”  He also spoke out against and “low traffic zones”—local policies that have been shown to reduce traffic and improve safety.  Sunak proposes stripping local councils of the ability to implement such measures on local streets.

The claim that drivers feel “under attack” met with appropriately graphic replies on social media.

More substantively, The Economist wrote that Sunak’s claims of a “war on drivers” were simply hogwash.

Prominent claims of a “war on drivers” will likely inflame passions, but as the media coverage of Sunak’s obviously political gambit shows, it may help generate some objective scrutiny of these claims.  If we look closely at the data, the aggrieved victims of our manifestly unfair transportation system are not drivers, but those who cannot or choose not to drive.  The success of local initiatives to reduce driving, lower traffic speeds, make walking and cycling safer, and make transit more available and more convenient, all signal that we can make or transportation system better and fairer by moving away from a world where a car is effectively a prerequisite to full citizenship.

What if we regulated cars like we do houses?

What if we regulated new car ownership the same way we do new housing?

A recent story about Singapore caught our eye:  In Singapore, you can’t even buy a car without a government issued “certificate”—and the number of certificates is fixed city wide.  The government auctions a fixed number of certificates each year, and the price has risen to more than $100,000.  This means that a Toyota Camry, which costs about $30,000 in the US, would cost a Singapore buyer about six times as much (including all taxes and fees).

Not surprisingly, Singapore residents complain about automobile affordability, in pretty much exactly the same way that Americans complain about housing affordability.  That led us to think about the very different way local governments regulate houses and cars in the US.  In short, houses are highly regulated; cars aren’t.

The underlying premise of the NIMBY/YIMBY divide is the notion that individual, often neighborhood permission is required before new housing can be built.  Getting a building permit is a highly regulated and often discretionary process.  Zoning and other restrictions empower neighbors to restrict the number, size and location of homes built, and whether any new housing is built at all.

The contrast between a building permit and a car license couldn’t be starker:  Issuance of car licenses is an automatic, ministerial function:  you pay a few tens or hundred dollars, and the state issues you a vehicle registration and license plate (the function if often effectively delegated to car dealers).  A building permit, as we all know, requires detailed review and may be subject to objections about density, shadows, community impacts and the like.  But if your neighbor decides to buy one, two or six new vehicles, there’s nothing to prevent them from doing so.  (Ironically, of course, the underlying issue behind many NIMBY concerns is parking, but instead of limiting the number of cars directly, we limit the number of cars by making housing scarce or unaffordable).


The decision to subject housing to an intrusive, byzantine and restrictive set of regulations, while making car registrations easy, automatic and cheap is in many ways an arbitrary one.  A world in which anyone could get a permit for a new dwelling as easily and cheaply as they get a new car registration would look very different from ours, as would a regime in which you needed to get your neighbors permission to buy a new car.

Environmental Impact Reports for New Car Registration?

The same could be said of environmental impact reports:  housing is frequently subjected to (and effectively blocked by) costly and litigious environmental impact report requirements, while the sale of new cars is completely exempt.

States like California and Washington are famous for their state-level environmental impact statement requirements, which are routinely applied to city and state development approvals for everything from new apartments to the construction of bike- and bus-lanes.

The essence of these requirements is that before undertaking a policy decision, the state and local governments should evaluate the environmental consequences of their actions. California’s CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), has been used to block  housing developments around the state. Critics say that CEQA has become “the tool of choice for preventing cities from approving high-density housing . . .. with a quarter of lawsuits against CEQA-reviewed projects targeting housing.” Similarly, in Washington State, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) has routinely been used to challenge higher density housing. The act was even used to object to an environmental foundation’s zero net energy building, because it didn’t include parking spaces. And while actual court victories under these laws are rare, the threat of a CEQA or SEPA lawsuit is often a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations to force developer concessions.

The premise for these environmental disclosure laws is, for the most part, a good one: government decisions ought to be undertaken with a clear understanding and careful weighing of the environmental consequences. So, if we’re going to have such policies, maybe we should consider applying them to particularly environmentally damaging activities licensed by the government.

That got us thinking:  Why not apply these same policies at the Department of Motor Vehicles?  Before the DMV issues a license for a new vehicle, it really ought to be required to consider the environmental impact of doing so. Each additional car on the road will add to road congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gases, and will likely pose a safety risk for other road users, especially persons on foot and bicycle.  For example, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average car generates 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, so each 2-year car registration should acknowledge the impact of 9 tons of CO2 emissions.  Just as cities now limit the construction of new housing when they think neighborhoods are getting overcrowded, maybe cities could set numerical limits on the issuance of new car licenses:  that would certainly attack the problem of congestion and pollution more directly than is done now.

The DMV should ask you for an EIS for that car registration

A DMV granting a vehicle license is functionally no different than a city planning department granting a building permit, so in theory it seems like the environmental review laws could apply.

Setting tough requirements for vehicle registration to protect the environment isn’t unusual. Other countries take an entirely different approach to vehicle registration. In Japan, car owners are required to show that they have their own private off-street parking space in order to register a motor vehicle.

It seems to us like a modest proposal:  if impact statements make sense for houses, why not apply them to cars—which seem to be a much more serious environmental threat, in light of recent evidence about the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that we haven’t done this already in the decades of experience with environmental impact statement requirements speaks volumes about the built-in pro-automobile bias in our current legal structure (which has been cataloged in detail in a superb article by Greg Shill).

You can add this to our earlier modest proposal that we extend the Americans with Disabilities Act to freeways, and insist that state highway departments provide accessible bus service on limited access roadways–places that are now effectively unavailable to those who are too young, too infirm or too old to drive. It’s another example of how we might take some fundamental and established provision of law and apply it in a way that is more supportive of our stated social and environmental values.