Our Air is Making Us Sick. The Answer is to Make Polluters Pay

New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated state, and once we recover from the coronavirus pandemic our most pervasive and tangible health and environmental challenge again will be poor air quality.

It makes sense that, as a corridor state, traffic is a primary source of air pollution as millions of our own residents and commuters from neighboring states regularly drive through New Jersey. The problem will only get worse as the vehicle-miles traveled in our state increase -- meaning more pollution and poorer health.

As we’re being reminded from the pandemic, denial and delay are harmful – whether the threat is from a rapidly spreading virus or the slower moving but still very dangerous impacts of pollution. Indeed, polluted air has devastating human consequences. Almost all of New Jersey’s nearly 9 million people live in counties with failing air quality grades, according to the American Lung Association. It’s no coincidence that nearly 9% of New Jersey adults and children suffer from asthma, with people who struggle to make ends meet and communities unacceptably and disproportionately suffering the most.

The good news is that things are about to change. New Jersey is finally taking steps to protect our lungs and modernize our transportation options. In early January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law the bipartisan Electric Vehicle Law, aimed at reducing air pollution by making it easier and more affordable to drive and ride electric. The law provides rebates on a sliding scale for increasingly efficient vehicles, increases the number of places to charge vehicles, and replaces dirty diesel buses at NJ Transit with clean, electric ones.

As groundbreaking as it is, the Electric Vehicle initiative alone won’t solve all of our air pollution problems and sufficiently protect our health. Much more aggressive action is needed to cut harmful emissions from transportation, which is responsible for nearly half of the dangerous greenhouse gas pollution in our state, and to implement the ambitious programs and achieve the goals of the law.

That’s where the Transportation Climate Initiative comes in.

This regional collaborative recognizes that transportation pollution doesn’t stop at state borders. The group of 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia have come together to modernize transportation systems and make it easier for everyone to get around and at the same time shrink pollution and unhealthy carbon emissions. Participating states have announced a policy framework that would place limits on gas producers and importers by requiring them to buy credits for each ton of pollution that stems from their products. The money that would result would be a game-changer for over half a million New Jerseyans with lung disorders who struggle to breathe -- and for all of us who want a cleaner and healthier future.

Thankfully, Governor Murphy last December committed to being an active participant in developing this vital regional program. Now, the administration needs to continue to be actively engaged and, ultimately, join the program. Joining -- and making polluters pay -- will be a worthwhile investment in our health, stimulate our economy, improve our communities, and provide a cleaner environment for all New Jersey families and businesses to thrive.

Revenue from the cap and invest program can help make New Jersey a leader in innovative public transit approaches that improve access and convenience, make possible long overdue infrastructure upgrades, and – no small thing -- improve health.

For too long, NJ Transit has failed to get people where they want to go – when they want to get there due to a lack of funding, mismanagement, and a steady decrease in engineers and staff under the Christie Administration. These problems in the nation’s third-largest public transportation system led to a disconcerting pattern of unreliability -- with delays and cancellations being all too commonplace.

By limiting pollution from transportation fuels and investing the revenue into modernizing how we all get around – improving bus routes, making trains safer, cleaner, and more reliable, fixing roads for those that need them, and helping more New Jerseyans drive electric – we can once again become proud of our state and the example it sets for the rest of the country.

Our air is making too many of us sick – and it won’t get better on its own. By joining the regional Transportation Climate Initiative’s cap and invest program, New Jersey has the opportunity to work with our neighboring states to provide much-needed resources to make common-sense investments and bring our transportation sector into the 21st century.