Commentary: TCI Looks DOA

The Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), referring to the organization itself rather than the policy, has put off publication of their final proposal for a multi-state, regional carbon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel for well over half a year. Originally, they promised to release it in the spring of 2020, then hinted at summer, and are currently operating under a promise to do so this fall – a window rapidly closing. Presumably, the delays are part of a strategy to hold off until a politically opportune time. It doesn’t appear such a time will ever transpire. Increasingly, TCI looks dead on arrival.

The latest blow comes from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who, up until a very short time ago, was TCI’s biggest cheerleader. But now, according to the Boston Herald, “Gov. Charlie Baker said governors are re-evaluating support of a controversial carbon tax designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions….”

He further acknowledged that, “‘We’re living at a point in time right now that’s dramatically different than the point in time we were living in when people’s expectations about miles traveled and all the rest were a lot different.’”

The “dramatically different” time, of course, refers to the Covid economic decline. This is no doubt a large factor in Baker’s and other governors’ thinking. People are driving less regardless of a penalizing carbon tax squeezing us to do so, and trends toward working from home and reduced business travel are projected to continue beyond the pandemic. Imposition of a 17 cent per gallon tax on motor fuels is no longer necessary to affect a reduction in transportation emissions.

Moreover, the costs of the program in the cost/benefit equation – both economic and political – are growing more acute. The prospect of a 17 cent tax/surcharge/fee on gas was never a political winner. The Ethan Allen Institute conducted a scientific poll of 600 Vermonters in October and found that 54% oppose Vermont joining TCI if it meant paying that much more at the pump, 42% strongly opposed, compared to 38% who support the idea with less than 20% strongly so.

Add to that general distaste, for example, that as restaurants struggle to remain afloat, increasing the cost of produce shipped by truck would be a cruel kick to an industry that’s already down. Similarly, when the tourism and hospitality industries are trying to ramp back up, saddling their potential customers with higher transportation costs to reach their destinations is counterproductive. The same can be said in regard to workers as they return to their jobs. After long layoffs and/or decreased earnings, are politicians really going to tell folks that, now that you’re employed again, you’ll have to pay this penalty for getting to and from work?

Which gets to the regressive and elitist nature of TCI, which is becoming more and more apparent to large swaths of constituents. In broad terms, the people who are least able to telecommute to their jobs – grocery store clerks, nurses, plumbers, electricians, etc. – are who we have come to know over the last nine months as “essential workers.” Many already see this divide between those who can and can’t socially distance due to the nature of their jobs as one of inherent unfairness. TCI would essentially be a tax on lower wage essential workers, but one that white collar telecommuters could avoid. Good luck selling that proposition in today’s world.  

In states with larger minority populations, TCI is even under fire for being racist. From New Jersey, a collection of environmental groups under the banner of Climate Justice Alliance including Maria Lopez Nuñez of Ironbound Community Corporation testified, “TCI to date has been tone deaf at best and racist at worst,” for its lack of outreach to communities of color or consideration of the impact of TCI on those communities. She went on to say, “I think TCI is just taxing poor people so that we can subsidize rich people’s cars.”

Assuming TCI follows through and presents its formal plan this fall, the decision about whether or not Vermont should join will be a topic for the new legislature. Some of TCI’s leading in-state proponents were rejected by the voters in 2020, such as Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, and Progressive Caucus leader Robin Chesnut-Tangerman. The question is, will the new leadership team continue to beat this horse, or put it out of its – and our – misery?

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.


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