Climate Crisis

Major Transportation Changes Need to Be Made If Rhode Island Is to Meet 2030 Climate Goals


The transportation sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of Rhode Island's greenhouse gas emissions. (istock)

Six years from its next big climate deadline, how will Rhode Island meet its mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? By law, the state must get those emissions 45% below what they were in 1990.

Transportation, while not the whole solution, will likely be a large piece of the puzzle. In 2020, the sector accounted for 38% of the state’s climate emissions — beating out electricity consumption (21%) and home heating (19%) for the role of single-largest greenhouse gas emission contributor.

The Ocean State exceeded the goal set by the Act on Climate to reduce emissions in 2020 by about 10 percentage points, but that was partly due to decreased travel during the pandemic.

“Do we know we’re going to meet the 2030 deadline? Maybe, to be honest with you, not yet,” Terry Gray, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said at a recent House committee hearing.

The mandated 2025 Climate Action Strategy will outline more clearly how close the state is to meeting that 2030 mandate, including more specific emissions modeling and sector-by-sector planning for how to get there, Gray said.

Within the transportation sector, state officials have already proposed improving mass transit and increasing vehicle electrification to reduce emissions.

Some progress and programs are already underway, and some have a long way to go.

EV penetration

Rhode Island’s 2022 Climate Update, the most recent document outlining progress and strategy on emissions reductions, notes the state aims to have 10% light-duty, zero-emission electric vehicle (ZEV) penetration by 2030. That equates to 43,000 electric cars on the road in less than six years.

Currently, about 1.16% of vehicles registered in Rhode Island fit that description, according to the state Office of Energy Resources (OER), a 55% increase from the previous year.

“While the current 1.16% metric may seem modest, it’s crucial to note the significant progress from just 385 ZEVs in 2014 to over 10,552 in 2023, representing a 2,640% increase,” Robert Beadle, OER’s chief public affairs officer, wrote in a statement to ecoRI News.

OER administers the Driving Rhode Island to Vehicle Electrification, or DRIVE EV, program, which offers rebates of up to $1,500 for the purchase of battery-powered cars and plug-in hybrids, both for individuals and for nonprofits, small business, and public-sector companies.

Some households can also qualify for DRIVE+ (an additional $1,500 rebate) based on income.

As of early January, OER had administered more than 1,100 rebates for DRIVE EV and additional 95 rebates for DRIVE+.

OER updates its progress on its website.

Transit improvement

The state’s Transportation Master Plan (TMP) aims to improve and increase transit service, mostly through the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, to reduce single-occupancy driving and the emissions associated with it.

Some of the goals of the TMP include expanding bus lines to different parts of the state and improving passenger facilities. RIPTA spokesperson Cristy Raposo Perry said the agency has already started work on both.

RIPTA and the state Department of Transportation are working together on the Pawtucket-Central Falls Transit Center, and RIPTA has also expanded service in Foster and Woonsocket.

But some of the added service, and the possibility of adding more, is in peril.

“Unfortunately, the progress we have made to date on our TMP goals has been affected by our driver shortage,” Raposo Perry told ecoRI News in a statement. That shortage has resulted in RIPTA proposing cuts to routes and service that could go into effect later this spring. RIPTA’s board has scheduled a vote on the cuts for March 28.

The agency also faces a budget gap of about $8 million, which, if left unresolved, could lead to further cuts.

Deficit aside, the 2022 Climate Update estimates that it would cost an additional $150 million annually in operational spending to fulfill the TMP.

Advocates have been calling for fully funding the plan and the authority but without success. A trio of bills that have been proposed in the General Assembly would beef up RIPTA’s budget, but it’s uncertain if they will pass.

Fully implementing the plan could also increase transit ridership to 87,000 passenger trips daily and reduce the state’s emissions by 231,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2e).

Looking at RIPTA, ridership is still down about 30% of what it was before the pandemic, according to Raposo Perry. Last year, an average of 34,500 passengers used RIPTA buses each day.

Electrifying other vehicles

On top of the state’s efforts to electrify personal cars, there are also efforts to get more large electrical vehicles, like buses and trucks, on the road for additional emission reductions.

Electrifying RIPTA’s fleet is another strategy listed in the 2022 Climate Update. So far, the authority has 13 electric buses on the R-Line, “which we are easing into full-time service as our drivers and maintenance teams continue to receive vehicle and charging technology training,” Raposo Perry said.

If the entire fleet — more than 300 vehicles — became electric, it would mitigate an estimated 14,122 MTCO2e, according to the 2022 Climate Update.

DEM also awards competitive grants to replace other high-emission on-road, nonroad, and marine vehicles through the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA).

The number of grants administered through this program grew to 12 awards in 2023 from four awards in 2022.

2025 climate action strategy

Although the 2022 Climate Update outlines several strategies to reach Rhode Island’s 2030 emissions goals, most are guidelines rather than mandates, according to DEM environmental policy analyst Elizabeth Stone.

However, the Act on Climate law does mandate the state draft another Climate Action Strategy in 2025. The update, due at the end of this year, is expected to include extensive modeling on how different policies would decrease the state’s emissions.

The new modeling will look at more specific scenarios; for example, how emissions would decrease if only half of RIPTA’s fleet is electrified, different from the “very high-level modeling that was done for the 2022 update,” Stone said.

“That modeling will be key to the 2025 strategy,” Stone said, “to help us kind of further refine where investments need to be made.”


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  1. transportation policy is mostly going backwards! We are prioritizing expanding highway capacity (e,g, widening I-95, 295, new ramps Rt 4, 37, 146, 195, 295..) to encourage more driving over longer distances to enable commutes from even further out. The state allocates about $235 million very year to eliminate property taxes on motor vehicles, most benefiting the wealthiest households with lots of expensive cars.
    At the same time, there’s almost no progress on the bike program – or worse considering the continued closure of the East Bay bike path bridges. Our transit system not only faces deficits McKee doesn’t want to close, it also may be forced at great expense to move its downtown bus hub out of the center city to “Siberia” (McKee’s term for a remote location) alongside the I-95 service road where almost nobody wants to go. Also missing, even from this post, is electrification of the MBTA trains. That should be a no-brainer – they are already mostly under the wires that Amtrak uses and it would make the service cleaner, quicker, quieter, more reliable, but nobody in the state’s climate bureaucracy seems to care. Instead they push bus electrification even though the technology is not yet ready – RIPTA has said due to range limits and charging times, they may need two electric buses for every diesel they retire.
    To reduce transportation emissions we have to do things differently but there is sadly no indication the current state leadership has any intention of doing so, even as transit could help our housing needs by supporting energy-efficient infill and transit oriented development
    However, there are legislators e.g. Rep Alzate, that are trying, see her bill H7774. And the House Finance Committee hearing March 20 on RIDOT and RIPTA is an opportunity for public input.

  2. We had an e-bike rebate here in RI for a short time. It seems to me this may be our lowest hanging fruit in terms of effective climate / pollution / turnaround. E-bikes give the option of getting to work without being overly sweaty on arrival; Not every job site has a shower! 30 mile battery range round trip are not uncommon. Studies show that most car trips are short. Like just a few miles. And one Tesla? Is a WHOLE lot of e-bikes, really. So less blood cobalt, blood lithium, (less suffering for those abused by the overseas mining industries).
    BUT like Barry said, the biking infrastructure–such as it is–is sadly lacking. The Netherlands is often pointed to as an example of just how much benefits biking / e-biking can offer. If you readers have the time, may I suggest the YouTube site “Not Just Bikes” run by an ex-pat living in Holland. The site has a lot of info on building bike infrastructure and all the benefits associated. In the early 1970’s Holland looked a lot like the US in terms of their infrastructure, however they made the conscious decision to turn things around. The Dutch are resultantly healthier, happier, and “doing the right thing” more than us in terms of laudable climate goals. And for those who will say “Hollands so flat!” So is Rhode Island for the most part. Not to mention that a lot of hillier places have a biking infrastructure and riders to boot! I don’t know any cycle commuters who are happy with the current RI biking infrastructure. In short? We need to stop seeing bikes / e-bikes as exercise machines or toys, but rather as one of our best possible options for meeting a climate goal that our elected leaders set into motion. Because right now? We aren’t on track to meeting our goals.

  3. Maybe the bigger solution is to stop focusing on making it less awful to drive and instead incentivize denser communities where people can actually walk to stores, schools, doctors offices, mass transit sites, etc. As one who has lived in Washington DC, Boston, and now in Providence, I know it is possible to have that convenience and not have to live in giant lego-box apartments. The neighborhood objections to two and three-family buildings is baffling to me. Those units provide much needed housing while retraining a friendly, neighborhood scale. They allow gardens and yards. And who has to worry about parking if you can ride a bike safely or walk down the street to catch a reliable bus that gets you anywhere you need to go. We have a unique opportunity with the I-195 bridge debacle to do things differently and better. Bring back a real water transport option. A contributor to the East Bay Gazette had great suggestions responding to the pathetically poor introduction of the Bristol ferry. We should advocate to adopt them.

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