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Sec. Tibbits-Nutt Spotlights Climate Issues In First Meeting As MassDOT Board Chair

"We all know that we're one of the filthiest industries, and we have a lot of work to do," said the Commonwealth's new Secretary of Transportation.

A group of people in construction vests stands on asphalt next to a large, washed-out gully that has destroyed a roadway and undermined a railroad. To their right, steel rails and their wooden ties are suspended in midair above the washout.

Governor Maura Healey, MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng, and other state officials inspect flood damage in Leominster on Sept. 12, 2023. Courtesy of Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office

In her first meeting as the Chair of the agency's Board of Directors, MassDOT's new Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt focused on the agency's responsibilities in defending the Commonwealth against catastrophic climate change.

After a brief introduction to her fellow board members during Wednesday's monthly meeting of the MassDOT Board of Directors, Tibbits-Nutt started the meeting by talking about storm damage in Leominster, where nearly 10 inches of rainfall from a single storm earlier this month caused severe floods that washed out roads, bridges, and MBTA tracks.

"Seeing these storms, seeing how they are increasing in intensity every year, we all know that climate change is a major problem," said the Secretary. "This will continue. We will have to find ways to adapt. We will have to find ways to build better infrastructure."

Pie chart showing Massachusetts climate pollution by sector. Transportation is the biggest wedge, with 37% (or 23.7 million metric tons) of the state's annual climate-heating pollution. Electric power plants are the second-biggest source, with 20% (12.9 million metric tons), followed by residential buildings (19% and 12.2 million metric tons) and commercial buildings (11% and 7.3 million metric tons).
Transportation – primarily roads and highways – generates almost twice as much more climate-heating pollution in Massachusetts than all of the state's power plants. Chart from the June 2022 Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2025 and 2030.

New MassDOT office will focus on climate accountability

Towards that end, Tibbits-Nutt announced that her agency would soon set up a new office to advance the agency's climate and racial equity work.

"We are creating – the first in state government – an Environmental, Social, and Governance office. This, I do believe, is the first Department of Transportation to do it. I also believe that we're one of the first public-sector agencies to to this in the country."

Environmental, Social, and Governance, or ESG, has become a shorthand for management strategies that measure and aim to improve an organization's performance on environmental issues – most prominently climate change – and on social issues, like wealth equity and racial diversity.

The concept of "ESG" has become widespread among large corporations and investment firms, but as Tibbits-Nutt alluded, it hasn't really taken hold in the public sector.

"At MassDOT, we can really champion some changes, especially around the protection of our environment, resiliency, and leading on more (greenhouse) gas reductions. Because we all know that we're one of the filthiest industries, and we have a lot of work to do."

Tibbits-Nutt said that MassDOT's ESG office will start with three employees – a director and two program managers – who will work with all of the state's transportation agencies, including the MBTA, on decarbonization efforts.

The Secretary also mentioned that the state's Office of Climate Innovation and Resilience has also recommended a "climate program management office" at the MBTA.

A similar office is being formed at MassDOT, and rather than duplicate those efforts, Tibbits-Nutt said that one office would oversee climate work at the T and MassDOT together.

"This will allow both agencies to advance and track all efforts in the transportation sector toward our shared Commonwealth goals," she said.

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