The federal government recently gave some climate homework to each state’s department of transportation, and Maryland believes it was the only state to turn it in early.

Maryland’s DOT has set new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the state’s 716 sections of the National Highway System. By the end of next year, MDOT hopes to reduce emissions by 4% from what was recorded in 2022 on its portion of roadway.

The Federal Highway Administration requested the new targets by Feb. 1 but later pushed the due date back to March. Deron Lovaas, who heads MDOT’s Environment and Sustainable Transportation Program, said that his team submitted its targets on Jan. 30.

More than 9,000 lane miles make up Maryland’s portion of the National Highway System, accounting for about 13% of the state’s road surface. But those roads handle roughly 70% of all vehicle miles traveled in the state.

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“A disproportionately large amount of traffic, both to carry goods and to carry people, actually happens on those roads,” said Lovaas, explaining that disproportionate traffic means disproportionate emissions. “We realized we need to accelerate the emissions reductions, and we’ve got some work to do in the coming years … this is an ambitious yet achievable target by our lights.”

With the 2022 passage of the Climate Solutions Now Act, Maryland lawmakers set a high bar: to achieve a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2031, and get to net zero — reached when carbon emissions are equally counterbalanced by measures that remove carbon from the atmosphere — by 2045.

Each sector of Maryland’s economy has plenty of work to do, but Lovaas and the rest of MDOT will have to bear much of the burden. Transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas pollution, accounting for 35% of all emissions statewide, 6 percentage points higher than the national average as reported by the EPA, according to a 2020 emission inventory development by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Though MDOT is bullish on its plans, some climate analysts aren’t so confident.

What is MDOT’s plan?

On-road gasoline and diesel usage accounts for most emissions from transportation, MDE’s emissions inventory demonstrates. So MDOT’s strategy is largely focused on speeding up the consumer transition to electric vehicles.

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That transition got a push when Gov. Wes Moore adopted the Advance Clean Cars II rule, a vehicle emissions standard first taken up by California — Lovaas said it should help increase EV sales in Maryland to about 1.3 million by 2031.

The state is set to reach 100,000 EV registrations any day now, according to the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration. Officials point to state and federal tax credits as making new and used EVs more affordable than ever; some of those tax credits will soon be available at point of sale.

The other key component to the transition is building out publicly available EV charging stations. That effort got a $15 million boost in January thanks to new federal grant funding. The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program will dole out an additional $5 billion across the nation to help install chargers along major highways — Lovaas said that will eventually mean EV chargers are no more than 50 miles apart along stretches of major interstates.

But EV charging is still an imperfect science. Telsa owners complained of longer charge times and less battery life during January’s extreme cold. And it’s not uncommon to find EV owners camped out at stations around Baltimore waiting for their cars to charge. It only takes minutes to refuel at a gas pump, but EV owners without an at-home hookup may have to plan their days around charging.

The EV transition is important, but so is cutting back on car usage in general, said Lindsey Mendelson, clean transportation representative for Maryland’s chapter of the Sierra Club. The state needs to stop funding highway expansion projects that incentivize more driving and instead double down on investments in transit and transit-oriented development, she said.

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“The climate benefits of more fuel-efficient cars have been undermined by increases in driving,” Mendelson said. “By investing more into public transit, cycling, and bike infrastructure across the state and locating jobs and amenities closer to where people live, the state can help expand Marylanders’ access to more affordable transportation choices while reducing climate pollution.”

The Moore administration has taken a more active approach in promoting higher-density housing and transit-oriented development. And slowly but surely, more transit is coming: Planning for Baltimore’s future east-west Red Line is back on track; the Maryland Transit Administration hopes the coming Purple Line will help alleviate standstill traffic in the D.C. suburbs; and Montgomery County has ambitious plans for a vast bus-rapid transit network.

Is it enough?

Though the state’s 4% reduction target is ambitious, Lovaas knows that the state will have to do more to bend the emissions curve further. Toward that end, the transportation sector needs to cut its emissions in half by 2031.

But according to MDOT’s Climate Pollution Reduction Plan released in November, the state is on track for just a 42% cut. “Reductions of 49% or more are possible, though they will require substantial shifts in currently programmed and planned investments as well as additional funding,” the report reads.

“Under any scenario, you don’t hit climate targets with electrification alone,” said Miguel Moravec, a senior associate with the Rocky Mountain Institute working on emissions reductions strategies with governments and businesses across the country. He thinks MDOT’s acknowledgement that it could fall short of its goal should be more cause for concern.

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Using data modeling, Moravec’s team is set to release a sort of climate calculator in the coming days that can spit out estimated benefits based on reductions in car usage. If Maryland can eliminate one in five car trips by 2050, Moravec said, it could not just save Marylanders money, but save lives by reducing roadway crashes.

While transportation leads the pack in emissions, the power sector isn’t far behind. And EVs need to plug in and charge, meaning vehicle electrification is intimately tied to the power plants that generate their electricity.

Electricity generation and use accounts for 22% of greenhouse gas emissions statewide, according to the MDE emissions inventory. And the power sector has more work to do than any to decarbonize, Lovaas said.

Still, Lovaas is optimistic, and believes that Maryland is leading with some of the most ambitious climate policies across the United States. The state has seen a 14% drop in emissions over the past decade, he said, and more progress is coming.

“I can tell you there’s no cause for concern,” said Lovaas. “As the governor says, ‘This is Maryland’s decade’, and that includes climate.”

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues. 

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