November 15, 2022

By Ramona du Houx

On the first anniversary of the federal Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (IIJA) being signed into law, New Jersey is still without a strategic plan to maximize historic federal climate investments despite a patchwork of projects across the state. A broad coalition of groups representing New Jersey’s environmental, business, planning, social justice, conservation, labor, and climate advocacy communities are urging the Murphy administration to do more – faster – to address the state’s unmet sustainability needs.  

“A patchwork of projects, no matter how important each is, doesn’t equate to a clear roadmap for how New Jersey will transform itself into a national sustainability leader,” said Renae Reynolds, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “It’s time for our government to wake up and invest funding where its publicly stated goals aspire to see multigenerational improvements.”

Atlantic City officials and advocacy groups are celebrating New Jersey investments to date and issuing a call-to-action for Gov. Phil Murphy and the administration to address unmet needs, especially in environmental justice communities disproportionately impacted by air pollution and vulnerable to extreme weather.

“New Jersey needs to work its plan and plan its work to maximize the opportunities for federal dollars for climate action. A public strategic plan would provide a framework to leverage more federal dollars and match needed state investments,” said Doug O’Malley, Director, Environment New Jersey. “Gov. Murphy’s administration should move forward quickly to release a strategic plan so that we don’t lose out to other states – and not meet the clear demand from towns for local clean energy projects.”

“As the densest state in the nation, New Jersey cannot afford to miss out on federal funds from the new infrastructure law. These dollars could go a long way toward upgrading our aging infrastructure, all while promoting environmental justice and creating good-paying jobs,” said Alex Ambrose, policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. “State policymakers need to draft a strategic plan on what projects they’d fund — and fast — so we can make the most of this historic federal investment.”

Atlantic City and Bridgeton school districts were awarded a total of seven electric school buses through IIJA funding.  Each bus costs between $350 thousand to $400 thousand dollars.

“Atlantic City shoulders a disproportionate burden from exhaust fumes, which are a major health hazard and can hamper lung development in growing children. This funding represents an opportunity for systematic change in the way New Jersey invests in neighborhoods overburdened by pollution and underserved by clean energy,” said Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick. “This investment will empower everyone’s quality of life on the road to a clean energy economy that promises equity.”

More than 46 other districts applied for $61 million to fund more than 200 electric school buses but were not awarded, demonstrating significant unmet needs and opportunities for public investment.  

“This funding represents a generational opportunity,” said Nikki Baker, Healthy Schools Now Organizer, NJ Work Environment Council. “Public engagement must underpin New Jersey’s investment strategy so residents in overburdened areas can empower change for their children and their neighborhoods for years to come.”

While the IIJA will fund $5 Billion for electric buses, $1 Billion per year, unfortunately it is not enough to pay for the replacement of every diesel school bus in America with an electric school bus.

Last August, Governor Murphy signed a bill requiring the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to develop and implement a three-year “Electric School Bus Program” that will fund the purchase of buses and charging infrastructure and assess operational issues related to school bus electrification. Only six school districts will receive a total of $45 million.

Each year, at least half of the funding will go to low-income, urban, or environmental justice communities to mitigate the disproportionate health impacts of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles on vulnerable populations — but it still is not enough. The pilot must be implemented statewide to address unmet district needs.

“In addition to coordinated efforts for electrification to reduce harmful emissions, the Murphy administration should utilize this historic federal funding to enhance mobility for all New Jerseyans,” said Kimberley Irby, Policy Manager at New Jersey Future. “Maximizing IIJA and other funds for transit improvements and active transportation, especially in overburdened communities, will be critical to ensure improved public health, affordability, and equity.”

The coalition has shared its ideas and strategies with the administration to consider. They include: transitioning school, public transit, and government vehicle fleets to zero-emission vehicles; investing funds to electrify depots; equitably electrifying the state’s transportation system; prioritizing public charging infrastructure, including in new office, retail, and multi-unit residential developments; dedicating at least 40 percent of investments in communities overburdened by pollution and underserved by clean energy; and preventing projects that would exacerbate pollution and perpetuate inequities in overburdened communities.