Legislature needs to act on transportation electrification

Climate goals won’t be met without quick action

NOW IS THE TIME to pass legislation in Massachusetts that protects the long-term public health of communities and acts on climate. A number of transportation electrification bills were under consideration at the beginning of the session in 2019; unfortunately, halfway through 2020, the Massachusetts Legislature still hasn’t passed any of them. These bills remain critical to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles and building a transportation future that is accessible, equitable, and climate resilient, especially for communities most burdened by transportation-related air pollution.

Why is this legislation important? We are in the seventh month of dealing with COVID-19. We have seen the impacts of the climate crisis harm our most vulnerable communities for years. The pandemic has further worsened these existing public health and transportation inequities. New data indicate that communities like Chelsea, Brockton, Everett, Lawrence, Lynn, Holyoke, and Boston neighborhoods with higher populations of black and brown residents and higher than average rates of asthma have been worst hit by the virus. The question is: Will Massachusetts take this information and do everything it can to work toward solutions that address long-existing inequities?

Massachusetts has set a target for reducing emissions to net zero by 2050 and is working on interim targets for 2030 and 2040 to get to that goal. Those commitments will stay just that — mere commitments — unless our Legislature takes action. Meeting these commitments to reduce emissions means addressing the state’s top source of climate pollution – transportation. We still have a chance to secure transformative transportation electrification commitments this session. Several bills with significant transportation electrification provisions still remain in play awaiting action from the Legislature.

The House climate roadmap bill released in July requires the state to identify priority locations for installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and develop a municipal guide for curbside charging options. While these provisions are a step in the right direction, they will not result in sufficient pollution or emission reductions. The Senate’s climate package included key provisions that called for the MBTA to transition to a 100 percent zero emission electric bus fleet by 2040, as well as for all state fleet procurements to be electric starting in 2024, and a requirement to track emissions reductions resulting from electric vehicles. The House and Senate climate bills that are in conference committee must include, at a minimum, these transportation electrification components.

Earlier this year, the House and Senate also passed transportation bond bills that are currently in conference committee. The legislation includes funding for municipalities and transit authorities to procure electric vehicles and install charging infrastructure.

At this critical moment when there is mounting evidence of the adverse health outcomes of long- term exposure to air pollution, the Legislature must pass transportation electrification policies that meet the urgency of the climate, public health, and economic crises. We can and must do better. We can look to California, which recently announced plans to phase out polluting cars and trucks starting in 2035 and sell only electric vehicles.

Our public transit system desperately needs our support right now, especially buses that have provided essential service to riders throughout the pandemic. Our transit bus networks transport the highest number of low-income riders who depend on transit and have consistently borne a disproportionate burden from air pollution. And yet the majority of the MBTA and Regional Transit Authority fleets still emit toxic diesel fumes.

Passing meaningful transportation electrification legislation this session is necessary to help the Commonwealth recover from the pandemic and move our public transit and state fleets off of fossil fuels. Transitioning our vehicle fleets to zero-emission technologies will not happen overnight. We need steady, bold, consistent progress if we are to meet our climate and public health targets, while saving lives. Such an undertaking is exactly what is needed to create jobs, revitalize communities, fix historical inequities, and get our economy back on track.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Staci Rubin

Conservation Law Foundation
Reimagining and electrifying our transportation systems will result in cleaner air and improved health and well-being for all Massachusetts residents, which is why we need to see these transportation electrification provisions pass this session. Now is not the time for thinking small and making excuses for why we can’t be bold in building the future we need. An equitable clean transportation future is possible for Massachusetts; we need our legislators to act with urgency and take the necessary steps to bring it about. This year has shown us we don’t have a single day to waste.

Veena Dharmaraj is director of transportation at the Massachusetts Sierra Club and Staci Rubin is senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation