Why Equitable, Clean Transportation is Key to a Sustainable Economic Recovery

Houston highway traffic        Photo: Planetgordon.com, Flickr

By Julia Pyper, host/producer Political Climate

As Congress looks toward the next coronavirus relief package, a growing number of stakeholders from across the political spectrum are calling for a comprehensive clean energy infrastructure plan to address the nation’s economic challenges. Updating America’s transportation system offers a ripe opportunity to create jobs while lowering carbon emissions. But in order to do that, policy experts say it’s imperative that efforts to rebuild do more than expand roadways. 

Alexander Laska, transportation policy advisor at the public policy think tank Third Way, told the Political Climate podcast that a sustainable economic recovery plan must also consider what kinds of infrastructure investments would have the greatest impact, where those investments are needed most, and who that infrastructure serves.

“This is a great time to be talking about how we can make sure that we are investing in the right way … to make sure that we don’t go back to the transportation system that we’ve always had. But to start building the transportation system that will help us decarbonize our economy, connect people with jobs and services, and will not only create jobs in the near-term, but provide for long-term economic growth well into the future.”

Why This Matters: The U.S. transportation sector is in desperate need of repair. It is also a leading contributor to climate change-inducing emissions and has a long history of exacerbating racial inequitiesReliance on public transportation is high in cities, and especially among low-income and minority communities. As a result, these communities are disproportionately affected by underinvestment in transit systems. They’ve also had less access to electric vehicles. Meanwhile, highway systems have traditionally been built at the expense of minority neighborhoods — neighborhoods that are often centered in regions of high pollution, heat retention, and flood risk. 

Houston, We Have A Problem: This dynamic is particularly apparent with Houston’s imminent $7 billion I-45 highway expansion project. Oni Blair, executive director of the equitable transportation advocacy organization LINK Houston, told Political Climate that the expansion project primarily benefits those traveling to and from the suburban regions of Houston. The impact on communities of color that border the highway is “very different,” she said.

There is limited access to the connections for transit, there are far fewer ramps for you to get on, and the highway will expand 100 to 200 acres on each side, which leads to significant displacement. By the Texas Department of Transportation’s own figures, the project anticipates that it will displace at least 1000 homes, which are multi-family, single-family homes, owned, rented, and public housing.

These same highway adjacent communities have been displaced by road expansion projects in the past and have long suffered with poor air quality “as we see all over the country,” Blair added. Simply building more highway expansion projects won’t fulfill the vision of a sustainable economic recovery.

Making EVs Accessible: Access to clean transportation solutions is another major barrier for low income and minority communities. Leah Stokes, political science professor at UC Santa Barbara, told Political Climate that any electric vehicle incentives included in a clean energy recovery plan must be structured in ways that benefit all Americans and not only wealthy ones.

One option is to offer customers a credit at the point of sale, rather than a tax credit so that EV purchasers automatically receive the subsidy and don’t have to be wealthy and have a high tax liability to afford the purchase. Democrats, including presidential hopeful Joe Biden, have also talked about launching a Cash for Clunkers-style program that would encourage drivers to trade in their older, inefficient cars for electric vehicles.

Multiplier Effect: Government investments in clean energy infrastructure, such as electric vehicles, produce an “economic multiplier,” or greater return for every dollar spent than the original investment, said Stokes. She referenced a recent report by renowned economists Lord Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, and others that found green fiscal recovery packages can also “reduce existing welfare inequalities that will be exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Stokes called on policymakers to support equitable clean energy solutions over support for fossil fuel infrastructure:

If you put money into certain sectors of the economy, like clean energy, that money pays itself back — it multiplies throughout the economy. It keeps people employed, who then go to the grocery store and buy food for their families which keeps grocery store employees working, etc… If you instead put it towards a fossil fuel company that is in bad financial shape, that money just disappears. 

To Go Deeper: Listen to the full interviews with Alex Laska, Oni Blair, and Leah Stokes in the first episode of Political Climate’s new podcast series Relief, Rescue, Rebuild.

What You Can Do:  Take precautions if you do have to ride public transportation now.  Here is a great article on how to stay safe — it’s less risky than you might think.

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