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Energy Master Plan Falls Short on Transportation

New Jersey Future Op-Ed ButtonThe Record, Bergen County, June 16, 2011
Asbury Park Press, June 17, 2011
Press of Atlantic City, June 19, 2011
The Times, Trenton, June 19, 2011

By Jay Corbalis

Transportation, particularly the private automobile, is by far the largest consumer of energy in New Jersey, as well as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the draft Energy Master Plan released by the Christie administration last week—a plan whose stated purpose is to lay out a strategy for meeting the state’s future energy needs—barely mentions transportation.

In fact, the entire 128-page document devotes nothing more than a few paragraphs to transportation. And even in this limited space, the plan’s recommendations are particularly underwhelming. The sparse section of the plan devoted to transportation acknowledges the uncertain future of hybrid and electric vehicles, and the difficulties that will likely prevent these technologies from enjoying widespread adoption in the years ahead. It then proceeds to pin the entire transportation strategy on these technologies, focusing in particular on their application to commercial vehicles, a minuscule slice of the transportation sector .

This directly contradicts numerous studies that have concluded the shift from gasoline-powered cars to hybrids and electric vehicles will have little impact on energy demand in New Jersey unless something is done to stem the growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Even as fuel economy improves through the introduction of hybrids and electric vehicles, sprawling land-use patterns in the Garden State force residents to drive more miles every year by placing destinations farther apart, and making other forms of transportation—including walking, biking and public transit—all but impossible.

The plan’s failure to address VMT, and to pay more than cursory attention to the entire transportation sector, could be justified if this important issue were being tackled in a parallel effort aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as was done under the previous administration. The 2008 Energy Master Plan purposely omitted transportation and instead shifted responsibility for addressing the link between transportation and energy to the Department of Environmental Protection’s Global Warming Response Act Recommendations report, released in 2009.

At the time, this division of labor had some merit. It allowed the Board of Public Utilities to concentrate on areas in which it had greater expertise, while giving the DEP the ability to take a comprehensive look at transportation, including the land-use factors that contribute to it. Indeed, the DEP report not only recognized the sizeable portion of New Jersey’s energy demand attributable to transportation, but minced no words in identifying the state’s sprawling land-use patterns as a major contributor to that demand, and with it to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“Since there is a cause and effect link between land development and VMT, land use is directly and synergistically linked to the transportation sector,” the report concluded, adding, “[I]t will be difficult for New Jersey to meet its statewide GHG limits without a fundamental shift in the State’s historic development patterns.”

The DEP report offered a series of recommendations to do just that, including encouraging more redevelopment, focusing growth around transit and doubling transit ridership by 2050. Yet since its release in 2009, the DEP report has lain dormant, with no significant action taken to implement any of its recommendations.

What we are left with, then, is a draft Energy Master Plan that pays no attention to transportation, and a Global Warming Response Act Recommendations report that pays lots of attention to transportation but is being ignored by policymakers. This effectively removes transportation—the largest consumer of energy in New Jersey, as well as the largest and fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions—from consideration in both the formulation of the state’s official energy policy and in implementation of strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At a time when the economy is king, addressing transportation emissions does not have to come at the expense of economic growth. In fact, any strategy to reduce VMT can and should be part of a larger economic development strategy that encourages growth in places that require less driving, and discourages it in places where driving is the only choice. The irony is that other arms of state government are moving in this direction, using incentives like the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit to attract development to transit-accessible locations, and using wastewater planning rules to discourage sprawl in outlying areas and focus growth in central locations. These efforts should be embraced and expanded, not shunned, by the state’s Energy Master Plan.

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