Op-Ed: New Jersey Needs to Charge Ahead with Electric Vehicles

Norah Langweiler | December 19, 2019 | Opinion
State’s investment in charging stations would give residents access to technology necessary to clean up the air and slow climate change
Norah Langweiler

Electric vehicles and charging infrastructure are essential for reducing emissions from New Jersey’s transportation sector. As the most densely populated state in the country with a massive number of super commuters (people who commute more than 50 miles and 90 minutes to work), New Jersey needs to be at the forefront of electrification. The electric vehicle bill (S-2252/A-4819) moves New Jersey’s government toward action to address the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the state (nearly half by the state Department of Environmental Protection’s own numbers).

The business-as-usual voices of our day would have us believe that the market will provide solutions: whatever the need, the market will meet it. This philosophy assumes the market will operate independently and whatever the market decides is what is necessary. But this has never been true. We have public transportation and roads for private vehicles — both of which are provided and maintained by the government — because markets are motivated by a financial bottom line, while governments and municipalities are motivated to serve their residents.

For a market to operate effectively and equitably, it must be governed and often supplemented by municipally-owned and -operated equipment. And while governments are not always first choice for innovation, they serve to level the playing field and ensure access.

A study from Harvard University found that in Lafayette, La., municipally-owned internet saved customers 50% of their bills, generally between $300 to $600 per year, and offered faster download and upload speeds than private networks. A bit closer to home, Concord, Mass., residents saved 15% of their annual premiums, around $115. The same study also found that pricing was far more variable within the private sector, often taking advantage of confusing pricing tiers and using their monopoly in the market to their advantage. A public option increased competition and provided internet to regions where the market wouldn’t go.

The same framework can be applied to electric vehicle charging stations. While a corporation must generate profits for its investors, governments often develop projects like this with an eye on community benefits such as job creation, health improvements and environmental protection. With the state’s investment in charging stations, we can ensure that people across the state have access to technology that is necessary to clean up our air and slow climate change.

These decisions are often biased, not just financially, but racially, as well. Privately funded technology or resources are often located to be as profitable as possible — which is generally nearer to high-income, white, urban and suburban areas, leaving middle- and low-income communities, especially communities of color, in the dust. Companies are unwilling to invest their technology in low-income communities or communities of color due to the perception that those communities are less safe, regardless of whether those assumptions are backed by data or countered by need. These communities need service too, which an unregulated market is unlikely to address.

If we don’t want to re-create the inequity that plagues many of our social systems, the state needs to be intentional about designing an electric vehicle charging system and rebate program that create equity.

Lower electricity costs

Advocates for private charging stations have voiced concerns about increasing electricity rates, an unfounded concern. Research shows that the more electric vehicles on the road, the lower electricity costs will be — think bulk buying versus the cost of boutique retail. Unless we want EV charging to go the way of monopolized internet or phone lines, we need to be sure a public option is available.

But public charging stations aren’t the only way for communities to benefit from the electrification prescribed in the bill. Electrifying public transportation, like NJ Transit’s statewide bus fleet, offers the benefits of electrification (cleaner air, less noise pollution, slowing climate change) to communities where buying a car may be out of reach or unnecessary. The bill creates a framework and timeline for New Jersey to take its proper role as an East Coast leader in bus electrification, following the lead of other major transit agencies.

While New Jersey has made improvements reducing air pollution, we still have some of the worst air quality in the country, with urban centers suffering the most. Urban and low-income communities bear the brunt of transportation pollution, with bus and freight depots more likely to be located near or within those communities. The results can be seen in the massive health disparities between residents who live near high-polluting transit sites and those who do not. Public transit workers are not exempt from the devastating impacts of air pollution either — bus drivers inhale fumes and particular matter all day, often disproportionately suffering from lung and heart disease because of it.

We must stop pretending the market will solve all problems independently and get real about the role government can play in providing solutions to our transportation challenges. The Legislature can begin by passing EV bill S-2252/A-4819.