Opinion/Skowron: For cleaner, more affordable travel in RI

Date: May 18, 2022
Author: Mal Skowron
Tags: Rhode Island

Our reliance on gas-powered vehicles for nearly all trips causes congestion, worsens air quality, and accelerates climate change. The good news? It doesn’t have to be like this. 

Last year, the Act on Climate was signed into state law and established binding targets to reduce emissions 45% by 2030. Meeting the mandate requires rethinking transportation, the largest source of climate-warming pollution. While Rhode Island plans to cut carbon, let’s take the opportunity to accomplish something greater: fix the failures of the existing gasoline-based system.

Rhode Islanders deserve transportation that isn’t just cleaner, but healthier, more equitable and more affordable, too. 

First, it should be easier to travel without a car. In our small state, there’s underutilized potential for robust transit service and walking/biking paths. Consider that 36% of all trips are less than a mile and 77% of Rhode Islanders live within a 10-minute walk of a bus stop.

If the cost, convenience and safety of non-car transportation modes are made competitive with cars, the state can reduce emissions while giving Rhode Islanders more freedom to choose the mode that best suits them. For example, think about how much money a two-car household might save if transit was good enough to replace just one vehicle. 

Rhode Island has excellent transit and bicycle plans that have stalled due to lack of funding. Bond measures introduced by Rep. Teresa Tanzi, if passed on the November ballot, would invest $100 million and $25 million, respectively, in statewide transit and bicycle paths. Everyone, including those who drive, will see less-crowded roads and cleaner air with these investments. 

Second, even if we travel fewer miles by car, vehicles will remain a major source of pollution if they continue to burn gasoline. To reduce emissions in line with state law, Rhode Island must replace 100,000 cars with electric vehicles by 2030. Electric vehicles don’t just cut down on tailpipe emissions, they’re also cheaper to fuel (electricity prices are equivalent to $2 per gallon of gas) and cheaper to maintain.

A wave of electric vehicles is coming. Major automakers such as GM, Volkswagen and Honda plan to stop selling gas-powered cars in the next 20 years, while others, such as Ford, are investing billions to shift production to electric vehicles. There’s a real risk that Rhode Island is caught flat-footed in this transition by failing to prepare our infrastructure.

If the trend continues, Rhode Islanders who want to escape fluctuating gas prices by driving an electric vehicle will have a harder time than anywhere else in New England. Connecticut and Massachusetts are poised to pass legislation that would advance the switch to electric vehicles.

Rhode Island should make it a priority to keep up and pass the Electric Transportation Act introduced by Rep. Terri Cortvriend and Sen. Alana DiMario. The legislation would improve access to electric vehicles of all types — cars, buses and trucks — by planning charging infrastructure through the next decade and tying fuel economy regulations to California, the country’s largest electric-vehicle market. By 2030, anyone buying a new car should be able to choose electric without worrying about which dealerships offer the vehicles and where to charge.  

It’s going to take a consistent effort over the next 30 years to transition away from the gasoline-based system that has our wallets and roadways in a chokehold. If you doubt that the effort is worth it, look at your last gas station receipt. Is the price you’re paying worth what you’re getting?