By Dominic Frongillo, Executive Director, Elected Officials to Protect America, and Arjun Shreekumar, New Jersey Coordinator, Elected Officials to Protect America

Article from New Jersey Urban Mayors Association, Urban Mayors Press, Summer 2020

Volume 3, Issue 2

The COVID-19 pandemic has tragically hit cities across New Jersey hard. Over a million people are out of work statewide. Many of those jobs may not return. We need to stimulate our economy with good-paying jobs. We can start by modernizing and cutting pollution from our transportation sector.

The pandemic brought racial disparities to the forefront, forcing many to understand that most employment, education, and environmental injustices are race-based. At the same time, the nation has been awakened to our systemic racial injustices, and elected officials have an opportunity and moral obligation to act.

More elected officials have become aware of the systemic changes that need to take place. We know we cannot return to a normal that was unjust. To begin building a more equitable normal, we can start by investing in a cleaner, smarter transportation future that will lead to better health outcomes for everyone.

Our cities can have more tree-lined streets with bike paths, walking lanes, wider sidewalks, and open spaces for recreation — spaces that reduce stress and enable residents to enjoy lifelong beneficial health outcomes. Making our cities better places to live and work creates a virtuous cycle of rising property values, more vi-brant local economies, and an increased tax base to fund ongoing improvements. This healthier future is within reach.

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 1.41.25 PMLow-income communities, communities of color, and people with disabilities have long suffered from air pollution caused by vehicle emissions. A Harvard study found increased death rates from COVID-19 for people living in areas where toxic air pollution is high — communities that face environmental injustices daily. This is something that we have the power to change. A recent study found carbon emissions worldwide fell by 17 percent from pandemic lockdowns. Over 43 percent of the total decrease came from reduced traffic from cars, buses and trucks — a sector which makes up 42 percent of New Jersey carbon pollution.

While we’re opening up our cities in the aftermath of the pandemic, many people will continue to work from home. This affords us an opportunity to make sweeping infrastructure investments: modernizing upgrades to our roads, bridges, and trains that will make them healthier and efficient, while reducing pollution. Envision a future where our cities and transportation systems truly capitalize on their geography and allow all residents to travel with ease locally, and across the state and region — that’s the future we need to invest in.

It’s heartening to know that New Jersey is already at the forefront with the groundbreaking passage of the Electric Vehicle law (S2252/A4819) this January. Providing $300 million for EV purchasing rebates over the next ten years was a major step. Recently, the NJ DEP announced that they will use the Volkwagen settlement to dedicate $35 million to electrify medium and heavy-duty diesel vehicles, especially in our cities, and $7.6 million to fast-charging EV infrastructure that will significantly expand the availability of public fast chargers along road corridors by 2025. The EV legislation also committed NJ Transit to electrify their bus fleet purchases over the next decade and their latest Capital Plan provides some of the initial funding to begin that transition. The sooner the better.

That being said, transportation systems need multistate cooperation. That’s why the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) is a vitally important program that is dedicated to ensuring improvements to our transportation infrastructure, which will reduce carbon emissions and overall air pollution. TCI is a regional collaboration of eleven Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states with the District of Columbia that seeks to improve transportation while developing our clean energy economy. Investing in clean, resilient, efficient transport can help drive our recovery.

Making transportation efficient, safe, and less polluting offers economic opportunities for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. With smarter, cleaner transportation systems areas that have been neglected economically will be viewed differently, and employers will relocate their companies there, bringing jobs and economic growth.

States in our region are working collaboratively to invest in projects that will improve the health and wellbeing of our residents while making our cities more accessible and resilient. TCI can play a major role.

Recently TCI released a draft memorandum of understanding that proposes a robust cap-and-invest program for the transportation sector. By auctioning emission permits and reducing emissions levels over time, we have the opportunity not only to make it easier for residents to move about the region, but bring millions of dollars into New Jersey cities for job creation and clean infrastructure projects.

Better yet, states would get to decide how to spend the revenue generated by the program – making transportation work for the needs of each community. This means that we could develop and we could finish construction of the Glassboro-Camden Line and Passaic-Bergen Lines, the Wittpen, Mathis, and Manahawkin bridges, and so much more.

Equal opportunity and the protection of vulnerable communities must be central to any public regional investment initiative. The TCI policy will bring funds in and free up money for healthcare and other initiatives to right systemic injustices. It will upgrade our infrastructure to be affordable and safe, and efficient, while creating jobs and investments in communities. TCI will boost investments and help New Jersey Transit become cleaner and more resilient.

It’s time for bold leadership. We need mayors and local elected officials to advocate for transportation options that work for the health and needs of every community.

If you are interested in learning more about TCI and in getting involved, please contact Dominic Frongillo, EOPA Executive Director at: dominic@protectingamerica.net.