Diverse Strategies Facilitating Clean Transportation from Federal to Local Levels

January 29, 2024

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As the new year rolls in, resolutions to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy continue to gain traction. While global level efforts, such as COP28’s explicit — though non-binding — resolution to transition away from fossil fuels, are critical in driving policy, smaller scale efforts are just as important. Even within the framework of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), it is at the state and local level where some of the most innovative examples of climate leadership reside, especially when it comes to transportation strategies.

For example, the IRA’s non-competitive Climate Pollution Reduction Grants have spurred 46 states to receive $3 million each to inventory greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and create preliminary action plans, while also opening up more than $4 billion in additional funding opportunities. As of January 2024, 24 states have completed climate action plans. Within these plans, approximately one-third of reduction measures fall within the transportation sector.

On the state-level, California leads the nation with aggressive, zero-emission, and renewable energy goals for the transportation sector with the passage of regulations such as Advanced Clean Cars (ACC), Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT), Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF), and Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). As of December 2023, 13 states had adopted California’s ACC regulations and 10 states had adopted ACT, thus mandating increasing percentages of zero-emission vehicles sold. These regulations facilitate broad adoption of zero-emission vehicles across all sectors and foster clear pathways towards fossil fuel phase outs.

Yet, the withdrawal of regulations such as ACT in North Carolina, Maine, and Connecticut demonstrates the varying appetite for broad, state-level regulations. Thus, states and cities — and particularly those in swing or Republican states — have taken creative approaches to implementing clean transportation strategies.

For example, several states with Republican governors are taking a savings-based approach to implementing clean energy agendas. Following similar laws in Arizona and Virginia, which require government agencies to consider lifetime costs of vehicles when making new purchases, lawmakers in Georgia plan to introduce legislation in 2024 which incentivizes government fleets to adopt electric vehicles, an effort estimated to save taxpayers $312 million over the next decade through reduced maintenance and fueling costs. With state and local governments owning, collectively, more than 4 million vehicles, it is estimated that a governmental transition to electric vehicles could save $11 billion in lifetime savings, due to reduced fueling and maintenance costs — a savings that does not include important health and economic benefits associated with clean air.

More directly, states like New Mexico are implementing state-fleet electrification mandates. In October 2023, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order to transition all state-owned vehicles to electric by 2035. Similarly, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed off on a Clean Energy & Climate Action Package, joining 22 other states with 100% clean energy standards. Following that legislation, Governor Whitmer signed an executive directive requiring all state-owned light-duty vehicles transition to electric by 2033 and medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by 2040. With more than 8,000 vehicles in the state’s fleet, and cities like Detroit implementing the nation’s first electric vehicle charging road, Michigan offers an example of public entities building public trust in emerging technologies.

Like Detroit, cities across the U.S. are pursuing strategic decarbonization efforts, such as municipal fleet electrification, as part of climate action plans. While this is no comprehensive data on city renewable energy goals and transportation plans, coastal cities are leaders in these efforts. On the East Coast, New York City plans to have a fully zero-emission city fleet by 2038, an effort that was codified in October 2023. Boston aims to have a fully electric school bus fleet by 2030, with funding to add 50 additional electric buses secured in January 2024; Boston also recently announced the integration of 750 e-bikes into its municipal bikeshare program, an effort which aims to reduce dependency on cars and promote active living. Since implementing a municipal clean fleet plan in 2021, Philadelphia has increased the number of electric vehicles in its fleet by 600%.  On the West Coast, Seattle aims to have 100% of both shared mobility vehicles and municipal fleet vehicles be zero-emission by 2030. Los Angeles debuted the nation’s first all-electric street sweeper in August 2023, as the city aims to meet 100% renewable energy goals by 2035. In San Franscisco, emission reductions go beyond on-road, with the deployment of the first zero-emission ferry boat in early 2023.

While coastal cities may be further along in zero-emission efforts, cities across the nation are actively pursuing similar efforts. In Miami, three free electric shuttles were launched in the downtown area in December 2023 and 75 electric buses were purchased in 2023, with 40 currently on the road and the remaining on track to be deployed. The city of Nashville, Tennessee officially has a 100% fleet electrification by 2050 goal and is also building out public electric vehicle infrastructure. In October 2023, the city unveiled the first of five fast charging sites built as a pilot program to increase publicly available charging across the metro area.  In the Midwest, Madison, Wisconsin, added its 100th electric vehicle to the municipal fleet in November 2023, a milestone celebrated as the municipal fleet aims for full electrification by 2030.

While local-level clean transportation efforts are gaining traction, obstacles remain high in Tribal, rural, and low-income communities. For example, some rural communities feel frustrated to play host to renewable energy projects, while not gaining from the benefits directly and lagging behind in critical infrastructure. For Tribal governments, many in rural areas, the challenges are compounded by the complexity of accessing funding, high energy costs, inconsistent electrification, and legacy harm of fossil fuel production. Despite these challenges, there are examples of progress. In 2023, the State of Washington awarded Tribal fleet electrification projects nearly $1 million. These projects offer important economic and health benefits, while also providing a roadmap for other historically disinvested communities to pursue renewable energy goals.

Apart from mass transit projects, most public fleet decarbonization projects prioritize electric light-duty vehicles, due to the high-cost barriers of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. However, in November 2023, New York City announced that they would transition the city’s 12,600-plus heavy-duty vehicles to renewable diesel by mid-2024. Reducing 16 million gallons of fossil fuels annually, this effort is a critical step towards reducing 50% of New York City’s municipal fleet emissions by 2025. In Minnesota, where cities pursuing fleet decarbonization have been stymied, in part, by operating challenges due to cold weather, New York City’s pursuit of renewable diesel may demonstrate compelling intermediary strategies for decarbonization efforts as manufacturers continue to develop cold resilient technologies.

Ultimately, efforts at the state and local level demonstrate that interest in adopting clean transportation options extend broadly. Further, these efforts allow communities critical junctures to engage with new technologies. Yet, in many communities, moving from plan to action continues to be a challenge. For example, while Green Bay, Wisconsin, passed a Clean Energy Plan in December 2023, action items, such as adding electric vehicles, must be passed through additional votes. For many states and local governments, upfront costs, technological challenges, and political disagreements remain as bumps in the road towards the adoption of renewable energy and clean transportation technologies. However, in navigating these challenges, communities demonstrate that there exist myriad strategies towards building a resilient and sustainable transportation system.

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