North Carolina ranks 23rd out of 50in NRDC’s new national report, which provides a snapshot of current state decisions on transportation-related policies and investments. The Scorecard ranks each US state on a number of different metrics – including state planning, vehicle electrification, expanding mobility choices, among others – and is aimed at identifying which states are advancing equity and climate outcomes in the transportation sector. Every state analyzed in the report has room for improvement, for example in the category of vehicle electrification, North Carolina scored a total of 2.5 points out of 31, while our top performing states only averaged 17.9 out of 31 points.
One significant reason that North Carolina beat out many of its compatriots further south is that unlike Virginia and Georgia, the state has a quantified goal for reducing vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver: To get the state’s percentage of vehicle miles traveled down by 2.5 % in 2040 and further by 5% in 2050. The benefits of reducing the vehicle miles traveled are numerous and will result in a significant reduction in transportation-related emissions, improved air quality, and reduced road maintenance. Establishing this measurement tracking is especially important in North Carolina, where the number of miles traveled by vehicle per capita is higher than the US average (9,800 US vs 11,600 NC) and continues to grow.
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and the same is true of North Carolina, where it makes up 36% of overall state emissions. Governor Roy Cooper has taken some progressive action through a number of different executive orders, but his actions have been stifled by bipartisan tensions and a lack of investment and capacity in the state’s Department of Transportation (NCDOT).
These tensions were crystalized in late September when, after an almost three month delay, the 2023-24 fiscal budget was passed. While the budget did include some improvements, such as Medicaid expansion, it also included prohibitions banning the state from adopting the Advanced Clean Truck Rule and joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. These measures and others slow the speed at which the state can quickly reduce its emissions from the power and transportation sectors.
Here’s what North Carolina can do in the coming months to improve its ranking on clean transportation programs and implementation:
Shift More Funds Away From Interstate Projects
The state received a mere 1.2 out of a possible 10 points for federal dollars allocated to transit and bicycle/pedestrian spending, compared to spending of federal funds in the state on highways. North Carolina can and must do more to reduce its transportation-related emissions, and that starts with diverting more funds away from highway expansion projects and towards projects that support non-motorized modes of travel.
Each year, NCDOT spends millions of dollars on these projects, which only perpetuates North Carolina’s unsustainable transportation system. Expansion projects are marketed ostensibly as a tool to combat automobile traffic and congestion, but research shows that interstate widening actually has the opposite effect due to a phenomenon known as induced demand.
Induced demand follows the premise that if you make something easier for people to do – in this case, meaning in the short run, faster travel times due to increased interstate capacity – people will do more of it. Over time, more people shift their travel patterns instead of replacing a trip with public transit or waiting until after peak travel times which ultimately creates a cycle of ever-expanding interstates and congestion. Recent survey data shows that voters are well aware of this phenomenon, with the majority agreeing that “widening highways attracts more people to drive, which creates more traffic in the long run.”
Expand Mobility Options
North Carolina scored 0.2 out of a possible 5 points regarding its share of dollars spent on transit per capita. The percentage of North Carolinians who commute to work via public transit is 1%, below the national average of 5%, and this is in no small part due to the rural and sprawling nature of the state’s urban areas. Additionally, North Carolina has the second-largest rural population in the country. These land-use patterns and population distribution can make it difficult for traditional fixed-route public transit systems to be an effective tool for reducing the number of cars on the road.
This reality, along with the historical decisions from NCDOT that have favored and supported automobile travel, has divided many rural and urban communities, leaving them with few safe options for biking and walking. Addressing this issue was made more challenging when in 2013 lawmakers passed HB 817, which prohibited state dollars from funding bike and pedestrian projects.
Even with these challenges, cities across North Carolina have gotten creative in prioritizing mobility choices. In 2020, Wilson, a city of less than 50,000, switched from its fixed-route bus system to an on-demand service accessible to citizens via a smartphone app. Ridership surged 300% during the pandemic after this system redesign was implemented. Earlier this year, Greensboro set an ambitious goal to become the first car-optional city in the state. Currently the city is conducting public engagement with its residents to help inform the long range plan. These efforts can be replicated and scaled across the state at no additional cost to taxpayers; all that’s needed is for existing funds to be allocated away from highway projects.
Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Through Vehicle Electrification
North Carolina received a low score of 2.5 out of a possible 31 points in vehicle electrification. This is also the category with the largest threshold for improvement for the state, and the opportunities to improve this area are numerous. There is a glut of federal funding available to states to support the transition to zero-emission vehicles in the form of rebates and grant programs to build out a network of electric vehicle charging ports. Additionally, North Carolina can take sweeping progressive action at the state level in the form of supplemental electric vehicle rebates for low-income buyers and used electric vehicles.
Additional state incentives have the potential to expand access to the electric vehicle market for these low-income buyers. Existing federally used electric vehicle tax credits, while helpful, are inequitable in design. A prospective used electric vehicle car buyer would need to have an annual income of at least $45,000 to access the full credit, assuming no other significant tax credits. This is largely out of reach for many low-income buyers, which is why supplemental incentives are needed as the used electric vehicle market grows.