California Department of Transportation

Turning a More Vivid Shade of Green: Caltrans
Takes a Stand on Climate Change, Global Warming

In 1971, barely two years before a global oil shortage shook the world’s economy, a whimsical commercial for a well-known automobile oil filter, posed an eerily prescient question, disguised as a statement: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

Today, four decades later, the ambivalent statement/question remains. The world may be exhausting its supply of petroleum, but the larger question now has to do with an abundance of fossil fuel-generated greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that threaten the planet we call home. And for many Americans, the ambivalence is still unresolved. Do we address global warming and climate change today, or do we leave it to our children and grandchildren? Pay me now, or pay me later?

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has chosen to follow the lead
of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, considered to be the most dramatic climate change policy of any state in America. Known as Assembly Bill 32, the act created a comprehensive, multiyear program of regulations, incentives, and market mechanisms (such as a cap and trade system) to effect a serious reduction of GHG emissions in the Golden State.

For example, AB 32 calls for reductions in GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — some 15 percent less than today. This requires reducing annual emissions for every person in the state from 14 tons today to 10 tons by 2020. It further makes cuts equivalent to 1990 emission levels by 2050, a drop of 80 percent.

broken roadThe issue is real for California, whose residents and economy rely on one of the most extensive transportation infrastructure systems in the world; thousands
of miles of roads, highways and railroads, hundreds of airports, thousands of bridges and ports that help drive and support the world's eighth-largest economy. Caltrans, in particular, is responsible for maintaining and managing vast portions of the state’s transportation infrastructure. As such, Caltrans is embracing a unique opportunity to become a leader in climate change adaptation and mitigation.

The relationship between transportation and climate change resulting from GHG emissions is fairly well understood. However, our knowledge is still developing about how our transportation infrastructure is affected and our ability to adapt to the effects of global warming. Emissions of GHG and the related subject of global climate change are emerging as critical issues for the entire transportation community.

State departments of transportation throughout the nation are establishing best practices to deal with the situation. They understand the impacts of climate change may include flooded tunnels, coastal highways, runways and railways, buckled highways and railroad tracks, and submerged dock facilities. The long-term costs of inaction in the face of climate change will likely be much higher than the price of attempting to mitigate today’s GHG emissions.

Without doubt, transportation plays a big role, generating approximately 38 percent of the total GHG emissions in California — the largest single source of emissions in the district 7 buildingstate. Therefore, cuts in transportation emissions are critical and must be an integral part of the climate change solution. Fortunately, California is leading the national climate change battle. The state has a long-standing reputation as a leader in environmental protection, and AB 32's landmark GHG reduction targets are much more rigorous than anything at the federal level.

To meet AB 32’s goals, the California Air Resources Board drafted a plan to identify the main strategies California will need to reduce GHG emissions. To reduce the majority of transportation’s GHG emissions, the plan calls for an increase in the fuel efficiency of motor vehicles (known as Pavley standards) by 2016. It also calls for a decrease in carbon intensity (low-carbon fuel standard) of vehicle fuels by 2020. In other words, automobiles would need to get better gas mileage and emit less carbon within the next decade.

In 2008 Senate Bill 375 was signed. Its aim is to link land use planning, transportation investments, and GHG reductions. It will change the transportation and land use planning process in California, with the goal of producing more efficient communities. SB 375 attempts to accommodate the state’s growing population with new housing closer to employment and shopping centers to reduce reliance on the automobile. It will require the 18 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) in California to meet a GHG reduction target for cars and light duty trucks.

Advancing the Science of Climate Change
“Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities,
and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already
affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.”
– the National Academy of Sciences

Each MPO must prepare a “sustainable communities strategy,” identifying how they will achieve the reduction target. These strategies will promote smart growth strategies such as development near public transit, a mix of residential and commercial uses, and affordable urban housing to help reduce suburban and ex-urban sprawl. SB 375 also allowed for a more streamlined California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process for certain residential developments.

With these two climate change bills in mind, Caltrans is working to reduce emissions from its operations and to ensure the transportation system is capable of withstanding climate change in the future. The Department is responsible for developing an efficient transportation system for all users and for reducing emissions from the buildings and equipment it owns and operates. The state’s roadways consume energy in many ways, including lights, water pumps, traffic signals, controllers, and signage.

In addition, the Department relies on a fleet of more than 13,000 vehicles, ranging from mobile equipment, light-duty vehicles, construction and heavy-duty vehicles, to special-purpose vehicles that perform functions such as snow removal, roadway cleaning, painting, emergency response, and other roadway maintenance assignments. A number of energy conservation and GHG reduction measures have been implemented within the Department, and research continues to identify new ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

Caltrans is playing a significant role in supporting California’s climate action legislation. The Climate Change Branch and the Energy Conservation Program within the Caltrans Division of Transportation Planning have been involved in creating a number of solutions to reduce emissions from the Department’s operations and from the statewide transportation system. The Department’s Climate Action Program promotes clean and energy efficient transportation and provides guidance for mainstreaming energy and climate change issues into business operations.

The Department’s approach to reducing GHG’s is threefold: vehicle and fuel technology; transportation system efficiency; and greening and resource conservation, a framework provided by the Director’s Policy, “Energy Efficiency, Conservation, and Climate Change.”

E85In addition to creating a more efficient transportation system, the Caltrans Division of Equipment works to reduce its energy use and GHG emissions. Its “greening the fleet” program began in 2000 to lower emissions by ensuring that its vehicles and equipment were more energy efficient. The program also promotes alternative fuels and low-emission vehicles. Examples include using hybrid vehicles, the E85 blend of gasoline and ethanol, and propane-fueled vehicles. The Department has also installed diesel particulate filters on heavy duty equipment, and employs solar-powered equipment, low-dust street sweepers, and hydrogen demonstration vehicles.

The energy conservation program within the Caltrans Division of Transportation Planning has developed and implemented numerous energy reduction measures. The program benchmarks energy consumption at numerous facilities to identify ways to reduce the Department’s impact on the state power grid. This initiative also upgrades traffic signals from high watt incandescent lamps to low energy light-emitting diode fixtures, and assists in photovoltaic (solar) power generation projects.

solarThe program is also helping to implement the Governor’s Executive Order S-20-04, which calls for reducing electricity consumption in state buildings 20 percent by 2050. Also, all new facilities and major facility rehabilitation projects are being designed to Leadership and Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver or better certification rating standards. (LEED is an international certification and verification program that strives to conserve resources through wiser “green” building design.)

Through engineering and materials science, Caltrans is also progressing toward more environmentally friendly paving products that are as long lasting as conventional methods. For example, producing a ton of cement produces about a ton of carbon dioxide. However, GHG emissions are drastically lowered by using new materials such as fly ash in concrete production. The conventional hot mix asphalt paving process is being replaced when possible with warm mix asphalt, which uses less energy to heat with reductions of 50 to 100˚ F. In short, it emits less heat when being placed on the road. When possible, the Department also recycles and reclaims paving materials. Studies are underway to determine the potential use of permeable and cool pavements.

Many other efforts are being undertaken to reduce the Caltrans carbon footprint while maintaining a safe, efficient transportation system. In fact, Caltrans believes that creating a sustainable transportation system will yield other benefits, including more efficient use of transportation resources, reduced dependency on fossil fuels, greater energy security, improved mobility and travel options, and more livable communities.

Caltrans is proud to be at the forefront of taking on the climate change challenge, and the Department sees this moment as an opportunity to transform the way we do business, moving toward clean and sustainable technologies to ensure that all Californians can enjoy clean air, unpolluted water, and a healthy environment.