Can the state’s leading environmental and business groups reach common ground and lay down their arms?
Sure seems that way. Former antagonists Environmental League of Massachusetts and Associated Industries of Massachusetts have joined forces for a greater good: improving public transportation while curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the last times we saw these two publicly engaged, they were in a war of words over the future of solar power in the state.
Now, they’re on the same page — literally.
AIM and ELM cosigned a letter to Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday that offers guidance and support as state officials help hammer out a regional cap-and-trade system for transportation fuels. The letter was sent to coincide with a multistate meeting in Boston regarding this nascent program, dubbed the Transportation & Climate Initiative, and circulated among the participants on Friday.
AIM isn’t the only business group involved. Two other influential associations also signed: the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Ceres, a Boston nonprofit that helps companies promote climate-friendly agendas, is also on board.
The letter is a year in the making. Not long after taking over as president of ELM in 2017, Elizabeth Turnbull Henry reached out to key business groups and started informal monthly meetings. Her predecessor, George Bachrach, would sometimes spar with business interests in public, over clean-energy issues in particular. Turnbull Henry has taken a decidedly more collaborative approach, hoping to turn enemies into allies.
There’s a good reason these groups came together. The state’s creaky transportation infrastructure often feels like it’s on the brink of collapse, with the recent Red Line derailment just the latest example.
Executives and their employees grow ever more fatigued by all the traffic jams and late trains. It’s a big competitiveness issue. Without a more reliable transit and road system, every new corporate expansion could make it that much tougher to land the next one.
The details of the proposed cap-and-trade program are still being worked out. Officials in roughly a dozen Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states see it as a way to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. Wholesale fuel providers would buy emission allowances, much like power plant owners have done for a decade under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Prices at the pump would probably rise as a result. But it wouldn’t require legislative approval in Massachusetts the way a straightforward gas tax increase would.
This new system could potentially bring in hundreds of millions a year in new revenue to Massachusetts. The letter signers would like to see this bounty go to improving public transit, alleviating road congestion with carpooling and “smart tolling,” and supporting electric vehicles.
Don’t be too surprised to see the business groups’ support. They previously backed tying gas tax hikes to inflation, and unsuccessfully fought a ballot question in 2014 that ended up stripping away those automatic increases. The region’s transportation needs have only grown since.
The corporate attitude toward climate change has shifted, too. Back then, the discussions at the Massachusetts Business Roundtable’s energy committee were largely focused on the high cost of electricity. Roundtable executive director JD Chesloff says climate concerns have since become equally important.
Business groups don’t see TCI as a silver bullet to solve the state’s transportation woes. They have been brainstorming, separately from the ELM meetings, about a range of potential revenue sources. Eileen McAnneny of the taxpayers association says reforms remain important, too. Throwing money at a broken system, she says, isn’t the answer.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce is helping referee those brainstorming sessions. The chamber has also been meeting with ELM, but didn’t sign the letter because it wants to complete its sessions first. The chamber says it sees TCI as an intriguing way to influence behavior through pricing but it also needs more info about how the money would be spent.
For ELM and its counterparts in the business world, this letter represents an important first step together. But it won’t be the last. ELM knows that solving problems as tough as climate change and congestion requires as many allies as possible.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.