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Infrastructure Funding May Yield More Than Just EV Charging

With billions on the way to build out modern transportation systems, officials are working to engage disadvantaged communities in the planning and development processes.

The 6/10 connector runs through Providence and its suburbs.
(Rhode Island Department of Transportation)
The billions of dollars in federal funding to develop new transportation infrastructure systems may lead to more than just new charging plugs for electric vehicles or new fleets of electric buses.

An equally lasting byproduct of the infrastructure initiative — and the companion legislation aimed at addressing climate change and developing the green economy — will be new approaches at planning and community engagement, approaches that put disadvantaged communities at the center of the conversation.

“There are so many exciting opportunities happening right now … . We need to be really intentional with the way that we’re moving forward to make sure we’re not replicating past injustices, or going about the same way things have always been done,” said Yesenia Perez, climate equity program manager at the Greenlining Institute, speaking on a Sept. 12 panel to discuss the importance of ensuring that marginalized communities are an essential part of the planning process for transportation and clean energy systems. “Again, community ownership and community engagement is just so critical to this work.”

Both the federal infrastructure package and the Inflation Reduction Act contain a wealth of new funding streams for large initiatives like building out electric vehicle charging networks, electrifying school buses and other transit vehicles, and growing jobs in the emerging green economy. Built into the legislation are provisions like Justice40, an initiative where 40 percent of “overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution,” according to the White House.

The planning process for projects has taken on new approaches to be more inclusive and to invest in more meaningful engagements. But also, it means communities need to know how to become engaged in the first place, and how to access the cornucopia of new grants and incentives now available.

“We are at such an important moment with climate investment, and climate policies,” said Samikchhya Bhusal, a policy associate with the Toward Equitable Electric Mobility (TEEM) initiative at Forth, a transportation electrification policy and advocacy group in Portland, Ore. Bhusal served as moderator for the panel. “We know that we have an impressive amount of funding available through the Inflation Reduction Act as well as through other federal and state grant opportunities.”

“Decades of disinvestment means that so many of our partners have limited capacity and limited resources to take advantage of these federal opportunities in the first place,” she added.

Organizations like Transportation for America and the Greenlining Institute, among others, are rallying to provide the kind of support and expertise communities need to write grants, organize events and design community-driven projects.

Communities can turn to discretionary grants to address decades of disinvestment and new opportunities to introduce transportation equity-type projects, as well as projects addressing climate resiliency, transit or electrification projects, said Corrigan Salerno, policy associate at Transportation for America.

“The problem with that though is these discretionary grants end up requiring serious staff capacity to apply, and that kind of capacity is not always the same all the way across the country,” he explained. “Communities might know what they want to do, but they may not know exactly how to do it. With all those pieces, they have to answer the question, how do we put it all together?”

The Clean Cities Energy and Environmental Justice Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, is one of more than 20 programs selected at the beginning of President Joe Biden’s first year in office to pilot the Justice40 initiative and develop best practices that will inform and guide Justice40 implementation in other federal programs.

“This is the first time we’re really seeing equity requirements front and center in these types of programs,” said Perez.

The effort has identified 17 cities across the country to hire and train a community engagement liaison, who will conduct outreach to better understand the needs of the community, identify community-driven mobility and clean-fuel projects as well as “really set underserved communities up for future implementation funding,” said Perez.

“So hopefully, the engagement that’s happening now will help shape a transportation action plan,” she added, noting these action plans can help to identify clean transportation projects. Those transportation projects could take the form of an EV car-share service, clean energy project or affordable housing.

“But again, really the long-term goal and outcome here is to build foundational partnerships and set communities up for longer-term capacity to access federal funding,” said Perez.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.