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Using cap-and-trade money for road repair doesn't pass muster

Using cap-and-trade money for road repair doesn't pass muster
The Main Street offramp from the Southbound I-5 freeway in June of 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

To many California Republicans, it looks like a perfect match. On the one hand, the state can no longer ignore the deferred maintenance of its roads and bridges, not to mention the need for new ones in some areas. On the other, the state has a big pot of money that more than doubled in size to $2.2 billion this fiscal year, and it doesn't have to be given over to schools, Medicaid or bond debt. Their suggestion: Match the funds with the needs. Problem solved.

One very big problem: The money was raised through the state's cap-and-trade program, and it must be allocated under AB 32, the state's landmark climate change bill, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including those from cars. When AB 32 passed in 2006, the promise was that money from cap-and-trade would be used to fight climate change — and, to the extent that the two goals fit, also to do other good works. It's inappropriate and, frankly, cynical for the Republicans to suggest that this money be used on projects that not only won't reduce emissions but seem likely to increase them.

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Of course, it's hardly the first dubious use of cap-and-trade money. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has found the state's climate change fund a convenient way to finance his beloved bullet train, which now gets a quarter of the money in the fund. Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushed through legislation to spend hefty amounts on affordable housing, a longtime priority of his.

But those projects are at least arguably in keeping with the requirement of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The affordable housing will be located along mass-transit lines and designed to encourage more walking and bicycling. Though construction of the bullet train would actually worsen carbon emissions in the short run, it's estimated that eventually the train would replace millions of car trips each year with electricity-powered high-speed rail. Still, these two projects are crowding out others that would provide more climate bang for the buck, such as improving local public transit.

For the most part, road building has the opposite effect. It can encourage sprawl and more driving by at least temporarily reducing congestion. There is some evidence that smoother roads increase gas mileage, but so far it's unclear whether road repair is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. One way in which transportation projects might validly be funded by cap-and-trade money: the creation of bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets.

Public trust in the state's cap-and-trade program depends on using the money in ways that will effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Other states and nations are less likely to follow California's lead if cap-and-trade policies are seen as a way to pay for legislators' pet projects rather than as a way to combat global warming.

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