08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Menendez: Transportation Missing From Climate Change Debate

The next phase of the climate change debate began Tuesday morning in the Senate, but with a big piece missing. The heads of all the relevant government agencies were in attendance at the environment committee hearing except for one: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

LaHood was also left off the guest list at the banking subcommittee hearing that Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called specifically to address concerns that transportation, which accounts for more than 30 percent of all emissions, is being left out of the climate bill debate.

"In my view, the Department of Transportation needs to be at the table," Menendez told the Huffington Post Tuesday afternoon, referring to the Environment and Public Works Committee hearing as well as the broader Senate debate. "One of the elements of this is clearly finding the right mix of mass transit and planning. They already have the expertise which would otherwise have to be created independently."

[UPDATE: A senior staffer for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told the Huffington Post that while he declined to appear Tuesday, Lahood has dispatched an undersecretary to appear at a transportation-focused EPW climate hearing next week. "We consider transportation a top priority," the staffer said.]

The Waxman-Markey climate change bill, which narrowly passed the House late last month, delegates authority on fuel efficiency standards to the White House and an electric vehicle grid to the Energy Department and the EPA. It does little to address transportation emissions directly, however, and Menendez wants the Senate version of the bill to correct that omission.

"Transportation accounts for nearly one third of our emissions and yet it does not appear to be on Congress's radar screen as one third of the solution," Menendez said at the banking subcommittee hearing. "If we do not provide substantial resources in the Senate's comprehensive climate bill to fund clean transportation infrastructure projects and incentivize sensible land use policies around those projects, then we will fail to adequately address emissions reduction in the transportation sector."

That would be a mistake, say environmental advocates. Transportation emissions are responsible for 47 percent of the net increase in total U.S. emissions between 1990 and 2003 -- growing faster than any other U.S. source of greenhouse gases, according to the Department of Energy -- and the department expects transportation energy use to have increased 48 percent between 2003 and 2025.

Transportation is the largest end-use source of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, even without including emissions generated from manufacturing the vehicles or extracting and refining their fuel.

Additional funding for the Federal Transit Administration and greater local and regional planning is necessary to cut total vehicle miles traveled, Menendez said, noting that the FTA has $400 billion worth of projects on the books but can only spend $1.5 billion per year.

But vehicle-usage incentives -- like, say, convenience for consumers and money for local governments -- are the root of the problem, said Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

"Most of the funding is tied to vehicle use and population and a few other factors, so right now if you increase vehicle use you get more money." Sperling said. "Waxman-Markey has nothing to do with vehicle usage essentially, and that's a problem."

Pricing is one way to moderate vehicle usage, Sperling said, but additional land-use controls and improved public transit services -- more stations and stops, for example -- are just as important.

Sierra Club spokeswoman Ann Mesnikoff said Waxman-Markey and Obama's new fuel efficiency standards are good steps. Like Menendez, however, she said meaningful climate change legislation can't ignore LaHood's department.

"It's important that the climate bill recognizes the importance of transportation," she said. "We need to have a comprehensive policy in the climate bill that will deal with transportation effectively."

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