by Jeff Lemieux
Do you remember decades ago when Takoma Park, Md. declared itself a “nuclear-free zone”? The declaration generated both headlines and ridicule – it certainly created controversy and buzz.
You could say it was a cheap gimmick. On the other hand, I think it was a brilliant exercise in guerrilla town branding. It defined Takoma Park as a slightly loopy liberal activist community. Takoma Park has been benefiting from that brand ever since.
I think Greenbelt needs a similarly big, dumb, defining idea, to create controversy and bring attention to our city’s values. To attract new residents who wouldn’t otherwise consider living in Greenbelt, or even know we exist.
In my opinion, our unique history as a New Deal planned affordable town isn’t enough. Greenbelt has grown beyond its historic core, and not always for the better, at least aesthetically. Most people now visualize Greenbelt as an exit off the highway, or a generic strip mall surrounded by vast parking lots, or a pod of suburban office towers that has seen better days. Despite our history, Greenbelt doesn’t have a buzz anymore. People don’t see us as the hip, leafy, affordable, high-education community that we are. (OK, maybe we’re not hip.)
But we can easily fix our image and restore our buzz with a cheap, defining gimmick of our own.
To put the “Green” back in Greenbelt, Greenbelt should enact an outrageously ambitious and controversial environmental law.
We should ban (that’s right, ban) the use of internal combustion engines within the city, with a phase-in period of 15 years. As battery technology continues to improve, this goal isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.
Start by phasing out the most polluting two-stroke engines, like those ridiculously smelly gas-powered leaf blowers and weedwackers. Yay! Gradually replace the city’s gas and diesel trucks as they depreciate. Over time, figure out how to do the public works jobs with electric vehicles.
For internal combustion cars and trucks on city streets, we should charge an “air-pollution toll” of 25 cents, gradually increasing to $1 over the 15-year phase-in period. Just a nuisance fee, but it would add up over time.
The fee could be collected remotely via EZPass at tolling sites around the city, on roads big and small. The city could just send an invoice for cars caught by the toll cameras who didn’t have EZPass. Drivers who fail to use their EZPass or ignore the invoices had better watch out! If they get pulled over in Greenbelt, they’d be liable for all their accumulated tolls! (As a side effect, this could lead to much safer driving within the city limits!)
So cue the outrage! Launch the lawsuits! Let the debate begin! Of course, Metrobuses and UMD buses would cry that their smelly buses shouldn’t pay. Delivery companies would cry that their smelly trucks shouldn’t pay. And so on, and on, and on.
Greenbelt is at a crossroads of huge highways and strip roads. We breathe a lot of air pollution from cars and trucks, some of which are serving us, and others that are just passing through Greenbelt on their way somewhere else. Either way, their internal combustion exhaust fumes create what economists call that an “externality” – that is, a cost imposed on others. Don’t like our toll? Fine, don’t drive through Greenbelt.
Let the fossil fuel industry explain why they shouldn’t have to pay us for the externality of poisonous air pollution they spew in Greenbelt. Let the state highway administration and our county transportation officials explain why Greenbelters’ health and clean air is less important than letting drivers dump exhaust fumes into our air like an open sewer. Put the onus on the polluters to fight the fees and strike down the ban.
And it’s true in Greenbelt, we’ve already made progress against greenhouse gas pollution and global warming by cultivating as many trees as possible. But we could do much more.
Now it’s time to cast incrementalism aside. Greenbelt needs to go big.
We need a big, dumb, capital-G Green idea to re-define Greenbelt! Let’s impose the first local air pollution toll on stinky internal combustion engines and ban them outright within 15 years. It would be a good fight to fight, and a great result if we could pull it off!
Disclosure: the author’s family owns a car that burns only gas and another that’s a plug-in EV/hybrid. So we’d pay the toll and face the ban too, at least on one of the cars.