Contact: Ed Potosnak

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To keep our air from getting filthy, we must move faster | Opinion

As so many New Jerseyans continue to cut back on our normal activities and work from home to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many of us may not be able to remember the last time we filled up our gas tanks. With fewer gas-powered vehicles on the roads, there has been a noticeable reduction in carbon emissions. While we fervently hope that we can resume most of our past activities in the near future, we have an opportunity to rethink our transportation systems and create a new normal to improve our poor air quality, protect the environment and fight climate change.

Currently, gasoline-fueled vehicles account for over 70% of the transportation sector’s emissions. Increasing the number of electric vehicles on our roads is the most efficient way to reduce the carbon footprint and localized air pollution, as electric vehicles run 69% to 79% cleaner than conventional internal combustion engines, regardless of the electricity source powering them.

The latest American Lung Association’s 2020 State of the Air report found that New Jerseyans continue to breathe some of the unhealthiest air in the country, driven by emissions from vehicles and industrial sources, both locally generated as well as from upwind, placing their health and lives at risk.

New Jersey’s poor air quality has contributed to increased rates of breathing disorders and many other serious illnesses like asthma. Unfortunately, there are significant disparities in the burden of asthma among populations of color. Marginalized by urban segregation, communities of color and low-income communities are often located near freight centers, heavily traveled roads and heavy industry. A harrowing study from Harvard University shows that people who live in counties that have higher levels of air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19. This is a big concern for New Jersey because our air quality is getting worse, not better, especially in our cities.

Fortunately, state officials recognize the health and climate impacts of our transit system. In order to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals set forth in the New Jersey Global Warming Response Act, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) 80x50 report recommends the continued adoption of electric vehicles in New Jersey until all new sales of light-duty cars, SUVs, and trucks are electric by 2035. The proposal came as part of an official road map that would allow the state to reach its goal of 80% carbon dioxide reduction by 2050.

New Jersey will have to undergo a rapid transformation to meet the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is several policy initiatives have been developed focused on light-duty passenger vehicles and, more recently, heavy-duty trucks, but changes will have to occur at a faster pace for the state to make progress in decarbonizing its transportation system.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently announced an investment of more than $100 million in clean, equitable transportation projects that will improve air quality and reduce the effects of climate change while moving New Jersey toward a 100% clean energy future. Leveraging proceeds from New Jersey’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Funds, this funding will invest in equitable mobility projects, electric garbage trucks, and additional electric vehicle charging infrastructure for environmental justice communities across the state.

The state has also made impressive advancements in transportation. We are thankful Governor Murphy has signed the boldest electric vehicle bill in the nation to ensure New Jersey rapidly transitions to electric cars and other public transportation. Since this legislation was signed into law, we are seeing progress. For the past year, approximately $22 million and 6,000 electric vehicle rebates were distributed to New Jerseyans, with over $30 million expected to be disbursed by March.

One way to help pay for the move toward electric trucks, vans, buses and cars is the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI). The program can provide funding for anything from the capital to improve NJ Transit to helping transition to electric vehicles by building out charging infrastructure. We can’t do this, however, without action to address important concerns of Black and Brown families by ensuring we are laser-focused on reducing pollution in environmental justice communities and prioritizing investments, conducting strong monitoring and evaluation of air quality data, and strengthening public outreach in communities of color.

New Jersey is on the right track, and 2020 was an exceptional year for legislation and state programs to advance electric cars and public buses. Despite the progress, we have to continue working toward both policy development and implementation to meet our goals of reducing carbon emissions, while also meeting the needs of overburdened Black and brown communities that often rely on public transportation. Let’s continue to make progress and pick up the pace.