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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has a chance in the Obama administration’s final months to lift metropolitan and state transportation plans to a new level of performance.

I’m glad to know that planners support the logical but potentially revolutionary idea he has proposed — performance standards that link the long-range plans to build and maintain transportation systems to the carbon pollution the vehicles that use them create.

As I wrote in April, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) posed the question of whether and how it should include a standard for tracking greenhouse gases in plans in a notice of proposed rulemaking that covers traffic congestion and air quality issues. A couple of weeks ago, after the four-month-long comment period came to an end, I bookended that blog entry with one assessing the volume and quality of comments filed supporting this proposal and providing ample advice to FHWA. The upshot is that more than 80,000 favorable comments were filed, including dozens of technical memos with ample advice for Secretary Foxx and his team.

This is no surprise, given the backdrop: A burgeoning body of literature on performance standards, with arguably the most influential report being 2009’s Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy from the Bipartisan Policy Center. That report proposed a set of standards for assessing the performance of national transportation investments, including carbon pollution.

Then the RAND Corporation provided advice for performance-based accountability systems in 2010’s Toward a Culture of Consequences based on experience in several sectors, noting that there is experience with these systems in transportation, to “inform policy and planning decisions.”

And in 2013 the Federal Highway Administration published A Performance-Based Approach to Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Transportation Planning thanks to an impressive panel of experts from 10 state agencies and six metropolitan planning organizations.

 This is the future of transportation in the era of big data. As the 2013 book on performance management, The Holy Grail of Public Leadership (and the Never-Ending Quest for Measurable Impact, notes,

[I]t’s our good fortune that we’re in the midst of a growing movement to make more information public and transparent. Organizations like the Community Indicators Consortium and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership aim to promote the use of indicator data to foster discussion and inform policymaking. Across the nation, cities and communities are sharing data on everything from dental health to environmental sustainability.

Other tools to assess performance in transportation at various scales include the Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating (STAR) Communitiessystem, which has already rated 50 cities and counties, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) system, and the Greenroads rating system whose advisory board includes yours truly.

Small wonder then that carbon pollution tracking is spreading as a best practice in transportation, as my colleague Juanita Constible and I note in a recent issue brief:

  • California and Oregon have set carbon pollution targets with each of their metropolitan planning organizations.
  • Massachusetts’s 13 metropolitan planning organizations are required to consider carbon pollution when selecting transportation projects and must report on annual progress toward pollution reduction goals.
  • The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning in Illinois, Genesee Transportation Council in New York, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization in Texas, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority in New Jersey, Metropolitan Council in Minnesota, and Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments in Colorado all use, or plan to use, carbon pollution as a measure of progress toward environmental goals.

Let’s be honest — planners have tough jobs.

Even as fellow citizens seem to pay increasing attention to momentary and nearby distractions, your focus is on the long-term and the big picture. This is especially the case for transportation plans, which must span 20 years or more and cover metropolitan areas and states. And yet that job is essential if we’re to develop by choice and not by chance. And transportation plans that actively assess their climate impacts have in many places led to improvements in community walkability, quality of life, and economic opportunity.

So this rule will be playing a crucial role for planners in your ongoing quest to improve communities. Thanks to President Obama, reducing carbon pollution is a national goal for transportation as well as other sectors.

Now is the time for Secretary Foxx to align national transportation policy with that goal by “leveling up” the practice of planning with carbon pollution standards for metropolitan and state transportation plans. The simple truth is planners can and must track carbon pollution from our transportation investments.

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