OP-ED: Lawmakers should pass bill supporting Electrify NJ agenda

S-2252/A-4819 embraces changes vitally important to NJ cities, including the deployment of electric vehicles and supporting infrastructure

Rev. Ronald Tuff, left, and Rev. Bryant Ali
Breath is life.

This simple reality compels us, as African-American faith leaders, to urge our state and local elected officials and business leaders to support the passage of S2252/A4819, a transformational bill which would improve air quality and help fight climate change. The legislation would accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles and transportation infrastructure across our state, and move NJ Transit to replace its heavily polluting bus fleet with a new generation of electric buses. These changes are vitally important to New Jersey’s cities, where air pollution and climate change threaten public health and safety.

In our communities, the sickening fact is that it is not safe to breathe. For years, we have watched too many of our children, neighbors and friends suffer from respiratory diseases caused in part by air pollution. Newark’s residents, for example, breathe air that is fouled by vehicles on nearby major highways, streets crowded with cars, buses, thousands of truck trips daily to and from ports Newark and Elizabeth, and diesel-powered cargo-handling equipment at the ports. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that one in four Newark children suffer from asthma — far higher than the state average. When children wind up missing school for trips to the emergency room because they can’t breathe, that is a catastrophic public-health and environmental failure. This is a daily reality in Newark, and it is wrong. Widespread use of electric transportation represents an important part of the solution to these problems.

In addition to these health concerns, our cities need a safe and stable climate. Pollution from vehicles contributes to climate change, with over 40 percent of our state’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from vehicles. Our urban communities suffer excessively from the impacts of climate change in the form of dangerously high heat levels during the summer, downpours that overflow our storm drains and sewer systems, and flooding during severe weather events — such as superstorm Sandy — that expose our neighborhoods to toxic floodwaters.

After Sandy’s devastating flooding, tens of thousands of Newark households had carpeting, furniture, and mattresses that were soaked with raw sewage and toxic chemicals, and that could no longer be safely used. Most households just can’t afford to make replacement purchases, and federal and other public support, while helpful, is almost always too little and too late.

It’s patently unfair that our urban communities are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events fueled by climate change that our local residents have done next to nothing to create. Unless the government steps forward with bold solutions right away, we will face far worse climate impacts in the years to come. S-2252/A-4819 would be an important step in the right direction.

Healthier neighborhoods and green jobs

The impact of emissions from vehicles is much worse than most people realize. According to the American Lung Association, air pollution in New Jersey causes more than $4.5 billion annually in medical problems and climate change-related damage. Vehicle emissions are a huge part of this. Members of urban communities bear many of these health and economic costs. There needs to be a better way.

That’s why, this past year, more than 100 African-American clergy around New Jersey, in Newark and the Oranges, Paterson, Jersey City and more, have supported Electrify NJ, an initiative to educate our communities about the importance of electric transport. At a series of events, we’ve blessed electric vehicles and called on elected officials to adopt policies, starting with S-2252/A-4819, to dramatically accelerate the installation of electric transportation infrastructure across our state.

We’ve also made it clear that the legislation must prioritize reducing air pollution and creating jobs in our cities. We have called on these same leaders and the Port Authority to electrify cargo-handling equipment and other sources of air pollution at ports Newark and Elizabeth, to electrify NJ Transit buses and diesel-powered construction equipment used in our cities and to expand state rebates and subsidies that ensure all New Jersey households have access to electric vehicles. These are the kinds of policies that will give us healthier neighborhoods and also create green jobs that provide opportunities for a better life for members of our communities.

The technology exists to make these changes happen. What’s needed now is our leaders’ will to do the right thing. For our cities, the electrification of transportation is a choice between breath or death. To our political and business leaders, we say: Electrify NJ — choose clean air, and save lives!

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