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Using Performance Management to Eliminate Greenhouse Gas Emissions From the Surface Transportation Sector

Cars with streaked headlights are seen on Pennsylvania Avenue going toward the U.S. Capitol during afternoon rush hour in Washington, D.C.

In 2016, the transportation sector surpassed electricity generation to become the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the United States. According to data from NASA, the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels “are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years.” Without aggressive action to reach net-zero emissions by midcentury, climate change will result in enormous social, ecological, and economic costs as well as political instability and conflict. In short, the time has come for bold policy action, and congressional reauthorization of surface transportation programs represents a critical opportunity to place the surface transportation sector on a path to net-zero emissions.

Existing performance management structure is insufficient to achieve climate goals

In 2012, Congress passed the surface transportation reauthorization bill known as the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). The bill consolidated many federal highway programs into a streamlined structure and combined this programmatic consolidation with the creation of a performance management framework. This framework, detailed in Section 150 of Title 23 of the U.S. Code, lays out national surface transportation policy goals, including goals related to safety, asset conditions, and environmental sustainability, among others. Section 150 also establishes a set of performance measures that correspond with the national goals. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), these measures are intended to push states to build “projects that collectively will make progress toward the achievement of the national goals.”

The establishment of performance management was an important step in reforming surface transportation spending, but the current structure has one significant limitation: States and metropolitan regions are permitted to set any performance target, including one that would represent worsening performance over time. For instance, states are not prohibited from formally adopting targets of increased transportation fatalities and major injuries or more deteriorating bridges and roadways. The current performance management program can be thought of, then, as bringing uniformity and transparency to transportation system performance reporting—but not as a mechanism to hold states truly accountable for their investment choices. The mechanism of accountability is essentially “naming and shaming” states that set failing targets or that don’t make meaningful progress.

The current performance management structure is insufficient to ensure states and metropolitan regions will make substantial progress on achieving national transportation policy goals, including reduced mobile emissions. Section 150 requires the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to establish a performance measure for “on-road mobile source emissions” as part of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program. This language, when combined with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s endangerment finding on carbon dioxide, provides USDOT with the authority to set a performance measure for vehicle GHG emissions. Yet in the absence of an amendment to Section 150, a GHG emissions measure would create needed transparency but not necessarily improve performance.

For this reason, the next reauthorization bill, currently under consideration in Congress, should amend Section 150 to require states and metropolitan regions to adopt targets that represent clear performance improvement. Importantly, Congress should mandate that states and metropolitan regions achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the surface transportation sector by 2050.

Implementing a GHG performance measure mandate

The rule implementing this mandate should require states and regions to achieve increasingly sharp emissions reductions over time—that is, a negative exponential curve. This approach would track with anticipated technological improvements in battery energy density and fuel cell reliability as well as the build-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure—not to mention better transit service and improved land use.

Under this proposal, states and metropolitan regions would be required to model their mobile GHG emissions when they update or amend their long-range plans and transportation improvement programs. In effect, the implementing rule would create a conformity analysis requirement for GHGs similar to what jurisdictions labeled as nonattainment or maintenance areas must produce for criteria pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

To ensure states and metropolitan regions meet their declining emissions targets over time, legislation should attach the GHG mandate to a combination of rewards and penalties. Under rewards, USDOT should prioritize discretionary grant applications from states and regions making sufficient emissions reduction progress. Ideally, this would apply to transportation financing offered through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program as well. Therefore, Congress should return TIFIA to a discretionary credit facility instead of keeping it as a first-come, first-served program for applicants that meet the creditworthiness threshold.

Under penalties, the reauthorization bill should clearly authorize FHWA to reject applications to use highway contract authority for any project that would result in a substantial increase in mobile emissions. Importantly, states would not lose federal highway funds. Instead, they would be required to put forward projects for reimbursement from the Highway Trust Fund that would make clear progress toward achieving the GHG mandate.

Overall, this approach seeks to maximize state and local flexibility without compromising on the policy goal of net-zero emissions by midcentury. States and regions would maintain the flexibility to pursue the most appropriate project mix that meets their needs provided that their choices made adequate progress toward the mandate. Strategies for eliminating mobile GHG emissions include:

  • Vehicle electrification and build-out of charging infrastructure
  • Expanded public transportation service and purchases of zero-emissions buses
  • The infilling of residential and commercial development to reduce driving
  • Roadway pricing that encourages carpooling, transit use, and off-peak travel
  • Robust biking and walking infrastructure, including complete-street roadways designs
  • Improved roadway connectivity to shorten trip distances and avoid the need for all trips to involve a principal arterial roadway
  • Expanded and improved intercity passenger rail service
  • Deployment of traffic calming features and technology

Ideally, the GHG performance mandate would be paired with new formula grant programs and project eligibilities focused on eliminating mobile emissions and expanding access to alternatives to driving to meet daily mobility needs.


Congress can strengthen the performance management regime established by MAP-21 by amending Section 150 to require states and metropolitan regions to set targets that reflect performance improvement. Furthermore, any legislation should require states to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the surface transportation sector by midcentury; this is a necessary reform to achieve the United States’ climate goals and fulfill its international climate commitments.

Kevin DeGood is the director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress.