California Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. has long had a tortuous relationship with state transportation policy. The latest episode, involving his administration’s proposals to sharply reduce the harmful air emissions associated with the movement of goods is no exception.

Last December, the state’s Transportation Agency published the 263-page California Freight Mobility Plan. Among other things, the document expressed grave concern that “competing freight systems in other states and countries” could pry businesses and jobs away from California.

It turns out that lots of businesses and jobs are involved in moving goods in California.

That much was recognized in an executive order issued by Brown in July in which he himself noted that “California’s complex freight transportation system is responsible for one-third of the State’s economy and jobs.”

He also acknowledged that “significant investments in freight infrastructure are necessary to ensure the continued economic competitiveness of our state.”

But any hope that Brown would aggressively promote the interests of California’s freight industry in the way Florida Gov. Rick Scott has championed his state’s seaports soon evaporated as Brown moved to the real issue he had in mind.

Lamenting that freight transportation “generates a high portion of local pollution in parts of the state with poor air quality” and contributes significantly to the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global climate change, Brown directed state officials to develop — by July 2016 — a plan that would establish “clear targets” to (a) improve freight efficiency, (b) transition to zero-emission technologies, and (c) increase the competitiveness of California’s freight system.

In essence, Brown gave his officials just one year (now eight months) to find a way to advance his ambitious air quality agenda, presumably without putting too much of the state’s goods movement industry out of business.


There are several reasons to question the administration’s professed commitment to a plan that equitably balances the three objectives laid out in the executive order.

Foremost among them is the high-profile international role the governor has chosen to play in advocating the most stringent of measures to address climate change. It therefore seems highly unlikely that he or his appointees will be cutting much slack to the trucking companies, steamship lines, seaports, airlines, airports, and railroads who move stuff around and through the state.

An additional reason for skepticism is that the administration has been conspicuously reluctant to come to grips with the full economic consequences of the regulatory measures being proposed.  Achieving by 2040 a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels will most certainly cost tens of billions of dollars. And that estimate may ultimately prove conservative.

Yet, during a July 28 meeting of the California Freight Advisory Council, a senior California Air Resources Board (CARB) official contended that it was unrealistic to understand how proposed air-quality regulations might affect the economics of the freight industry.

As articulated by the same official during an October 1 webinar CARB hosted to discuss what has been christened as the state’s Sustainable Freight Action Plan, the new air-cleansing technologies that would developed over the next several years would make goods movement so much more efficient that transportation providers would – presumably somewhere in the fullness of time — profit.

This cavalier attitude towards the dollars-and-cents, here-and-now realities of running businesses that employ a third of the state’s workers extends to the administration’s notions of how the development of these new zero-emission technologies will be financed. The only thing that is clear is that the administration is counting on someone else picking up virtually all of the tab for research, development, testing, and implementation.

Of further concern to the transportation industry is that, as any student of bureaucratic politics would quickly grasp, the only intuitional player within the administration that might conceivably articulate a private sector position is the under-staffed and hopelessly out-gunned Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz).

Holding out the hope of exerting some influence over the administration’s planning, representatives of the state’s goods moving industries have adopted an anodyne approach, masking worries that verge on panic by professing their interest in cooperating with Brown in meeting his environmental goals.

Whether that tactic will bear any tangible fruit remains to be seen.

Or, as the governor might say, videbimus.