NJ’s $1.2 trillion share of the federal infrastructure cash should target climate change | Opinion

By Maria Lopez-Nuñez

You can do – and undo — a lot with a trillion dollars.

The Murphy administration must consider both sides of that equation as decision-makers develop a plan to spend New Jersey’s share of the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funding.

Suggestions for allocating this once-in-a-generation pot of federal equity funds abound, but spending decisions must be guided by transparency, climate pollution reductions and. Neighborhoods overburdened by pollution and underserved by clean energy tend to be communities of color.

Commonly within close proximity of power plants, incinerators, ports, highways and other pollution generators, our residents often struggle daily to make ends meet, suffer more than most from diesel fuel exhaust, and disproportionately experience health impacts from previous energy and transportation planning decisions. The IIJA represents an opportunity for the Murphy administration to provide leadership and to help transform New Jersey into a stronger, fairer and more resilient place for all residents.

I’m a member of a coalition representing New Jersey’s environmental, labor, business, planning, social justice, and climate advocacy communities. We are committed to ensuring that federal funding is used wisely. When we met with the governor’s staff this spring, we emphasized the importance of strategically and equitably investing in initiatives that improve the state’s persistent environmental, economic and health inequities. The IIJA, passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Joe Biden, is intended for investments in physical infrastructure and mitigation measures to tackle climate change impacts. Our proposals include:

  • Investing at least 40% of the funds to help reverse the disproportionate damage that existing energy infrastructure and policies have perpetuated in environmental justice communities, as indicated in President Biden’s Justice40 initiative
  • Allocating funding to school districts to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements
  • Enhancing electric grid resilience and reliability, including preparing our grid for increased offshore wind energy production
  • Transitioning school, public transit, and government vehicle fleets to zero-emission vehicles; prioritizing charging infrastructure, including in new office, retail and multi-unit residential developments; and electrifying bus depots
  • Reducing port emissions, especially from trucks traveling through residential areas
  • Supporting pedestrian-oriented developments that reduce vehicle dependence and create more bikeable, breathable and walkable communities
  • Funding “green infrastructure” projects in overburdened communities that create jobs, mitigate flooding, eliminate combined sewer overflows, and reduce temperatures in urban heat islands
  • Distributing grants to support energy efficiency, weatherization and building electrification

These recommendations align with appropriate uses of IIJA funds as noted in the law and will accelerate our clean energy transition, improve health, support New Jersey’s families, and enhance the state’s economic resiliency.

The Murphy administration’s funding strategy presents an opportunity for our state leadership to put its money where its climate goals aspire — in the counties and towns most harmed by the devastating impacts of global climate change. These communities deserve to be supported in our quest to advance New Jersey’s clean energy objectives. Scaling up and investing in clean energy infrastructure opens opportunities for workers to re-skill or learn new in-demand skills necessary to compete in our economy. We can simultaneously take on the climate crisis and create family-sustaining jobs.

Our coalition also recommends investment in state resources, staff and technical assistance to help counties, municipalities and community-based organizations apply for competitive IIJA funding and manage and oversee implementation. All levels of government must have the appropriate capacity to secure funding and maximize its impact.

President Biden said it well: “The federal government cannot build a better America alone — it needs state and local leadership to act as coordinators and help prepare communities to benefit from transformative infrastructure funding.” We strongly believe that means an open, transparent process with ample opportunity for robust stakeholder dialogue and input – especially in overburdened communities – who must have a voice in decisions that will impact and change their neighborhoods for decades to come.

We look forward to working with the Murphy administration to devise the highest and best use of these federal funds to improve the lives of all New Jerseyans.

Maria Lopez-Nuñez is director of Environmental Justice and Community Development for the Newark-based Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC). Founded in 1969, ICC works to engage and empower individuals and families to collaboratively create a just, vibrant and sustainable community.

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