Over the next five years all 50 states, including New Jersey, are set to get $350 billion for highway construction over the next five years thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill which includes the biggest investment in bridge construction since the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.
Historically, building bridges was just a matter of engineering a structure to carry a traveler from point A to point B via the most direct and cost-effective route. But in the 21st century it’s not that simple. Now, when we are thinking about building structures near the sea or over rivers and bays we have to be thinking about not where that water is now, but where it will be decades from now.
It all depends on our ability to throttle climate change and the emissions we know accelerate the earth’s warming. Similarly, in the era of ongoing infectious disease challenges like COVID, we need to also think about the health impacts on the communities where we site massive infrastructure that carries our commercial traffic even when it’s on elevated highways. As it turns out, that’s where the backbone of our essential workforce often lives.
A lot has happened since Eisenhower was president and the Interstate Highway System was established. In just the last few years, there’s ample evidence that the climate crisis is accelerating and the COVID pandemic, with its massive death toll has us in the throes of a further notice health crisis where widespread infectious disease has become like wallpaper, something we are told we have to just live with.
There’s an aversion to seeing how all these stress points are connected especially if doing so challenges the established economic power structure which supports our political leadership through campaign contributions.
COVID-JUST A SPEED BUMP?
As the daily death count from COVID has settled into the hundreds, instead of thousands, the resolve to address the racial and socio-economic disparities that COVID exposed has pretty much faded. It’s been sidelined by the imperative of growing the economy and building wealth. This ‘moving on’ is accomplished by the power structure through compartmentalizing via thematic press releases that use rhetoric that gives voice to concerns while avoiding concrete action and just heats up the atmosphere.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted our minority communities and we must work together to eliminate the existing racial disparities in health care,” said Governor Murphy back in October of 2021 when he signed the legislation establishing the COVID Pandemic Task Force on Racial and Health Disparities. No doubt, this taskforce will meet its statutory obligation and issue a report that can be put on the shelf with all the other reports, but will it have any real impact on a society very much back to business as usual?
This past weekend the New York Times published a lengthy analysis about how various locales were sorting out what roads and bridges projects to undertake amidst a worsening climate crisis. The ambitious and graphic rich feature posited the provocative question: “Widening Highways Doesn’t Fix Traffic. So Why Do We Keep Doing It?”
“More Lanes, Meant to Cut Traffic Made It Worse-Transportation Boards Can’t Quit a Strategy Used Since the ‘60s,” the newspaper proclaimed. The Times cited a 2009 study that “confirmed what transportation experts had observed for years: In a metropolitan area, when road capacity increases by 1 percent, the number of cars on the road after a few years also increases by one percent.”
It contrasted the cancelation of a proposed widening of Route 710 in Los Angles with a similar project supported by the Murphy administration along the stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike that runs from the Holland Tunnel and over the Newark Bay serving the port complex.
“In addition to carrying traffic into Manhattan, the Turnpike is, like Route 710 in Los Angeles, an artery heavily trafficked by freight trucks carrying goods between ports and warehouses in the area,” reasoned the Times. What the Times analysis did not discuss was the well documented linkage between the diesel particulate matter that truck traffic generates and higher infant mortality, shorter life expectancy as well as a greater incidence of chronic illnesses like asthma, cancer, and heart disease in the communities through which it flows.
RACE, POVERTY, DISEASE AND POLLUTION
Public health data indicates that just three of the counties in New Jersey closest to the Newark port complex account for a third of the hospitalizations for asthma in the state. Before the pandemic, epidemiologists estimated that exposure to diesel emissions was linked nationally to 125,000 cancer cases and 21,000 pre-mature deaths annually.
Dr. Bob Laumbach is a physician and an associate professor of environment and occupational health at Rutgers School of Public Health. He’s has spent his career tracking the public health linkages between disease and environmental contamination.
“We’ve done some mapping that looks at the proximity to roadways, the incidence of COVID as well as modeling of diesel emissions using the National Air Toxics Analysis data and one of our investigators has found a strong association between diesel exhaust and the incidence of COVID,” Laumbach told InsiderNJ during a phone interview.
Laumbach cautioned that these preliminary findings should not be “confounded because there are a lot of other factors working together—so we couldn’t say diesel exhaust did that—but these things like poverty, minority proportion of the population and other actors related to social vulnerability are all clustered together with diesel [particulates] and other air pollution, along with COVID and many other health outcomes.”
The cancellation out in Los Angeles of the Route 710 expansion reflected a 21st century recalibration that New Jersey as of right now appears incapable of making.
“The location of this major trucking route, however, is emblematic of a historical pattern of negligent U.S. transportation policy,” according to a description of LA’s Route 710 corridor on the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity website. “The 1960s boom in freeway construction advanced the country’s economic productivity, but at the cost of disrupting and displacing communities of color. Planners often built roads right in the middle of thriving Black neighborhoods, inciting community protests best summarized by the slogan, ‘No more white roads through black bedrooms.’”
That close proximity to the high volume of traffic has consequences for the I-710 Corridor including significantly higher exposure to pollutants and particulate matter concentrations. “Even at moderate levels, particulate matter harms the short- and long-term health of people sensitive to it—typically young children, senior citizens, and people with respiratory illnesses,” the USC Program reported. “Studies find that those living in high emission zones are much more likely to develop asthma, heart disease, and lung cancer, and women are more likely to give birth prematurely.”
In the case of LA’s Route 710 project, it was a 2020 U.S. EPA ruling that the widening violated the federal Clean Air Act that put the brakes on the project which was ultimately canceled by state transportation officials. Now, the Times reports, the state is looking at encouraging shifting freight to rail, spending money on improving air filtration is schools as well as “providing better access to green spaces and investing in a zero-emissions truck program.”
CATCHING UP OR JUST PILING ON?
Meanwhile, here in New Jersey NJ DOT Commissioner Dianne Gutierrez-Scaccetti advocated strongly for the $10.7 billion NJ Turnpike project telling the Times that she was not just an advocate for widening roads just for the sake of widening but that the expansion was needed to accommodate new residential and commercial development as well as ensure the state’s ports remained viable.
There’s pushback from the local communities in Essex and Hudson Counties through which that portion of the New Jersey Turnpike extends. And their points of contention echo those of the people living in the Route 710 corridor.
In a response to a query from InsiderNJ, Newark resident Kim Gaddy, the Clean Water Action’s National Environmental Justice Director wrote “expanding the Turnpike in Hudson County adds insult to injury in already overburdened communities.”
Gaddy continued. “It makes the bottleneck leading into the Holland Tunnel worse, diverts more vehicles onto local Jersey City and Hoboken streets, and increases greenhouse gas emissions and more deadly pollution, which will disproportionately affect low-income workers, immigrants, and people of color. We need to fix it first and prioritize more freight rail and electric equipment at the ports not dirty diesel.”
In his response to an InsiderNJ email, Gov. Murphy insisted his administration was balancing the state’s economic interest with its environmental well-being.
“My administration is undertaking the most considerable infrastructure upgrades in the history of New Jersey, a state that continues to compete and grow as an economic and transportation hub not just regionally, but on a national and global scale,” Murphy wrote. “Whether it’s improvements to our airports, train stations, or roadways, these investments will boost our state’s economic efficiency and vitality, especially at our state’s ports, which demand proactive and robust improvements to replace outdated infrastructure and meet the demands of our significantly growing population and economy for generations to come.”
Murphy continued. “With projects of this magnitude, we will continue to prioritize residents’ health and safety while considering short- and long-term environmental concerns. These important factors will be balanced into the State’s comprehensive transportation initiative as plans move forward.”
If past is prologue, the communities of color that have suffered for decades the health effects from the truck emissions generated off of New Jersey heavy freight corridors can anticipate just more of the same. In Trenton, commerce always prevails because it’s what fuels and sustains our politics.
Consider the decision back in early 2016 by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reverse itself on a pledge it made in 2010 to ban all diesel trucks that were older than 2007 when federal truck engine regulations kicked in, which would have required a major reduction in highly toxic diesel emissions.
Back in 2010, then-Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia hailed the move to ban the pre-2007 diesel soot-spewing trucks by 2017 as a way the bi-state agency “would build on our legacy as good environmental stewards.”
In rationalizing the Port Authority backslide in 2016, a spokesman blamed sticker shock, telling the Record it would cost the bi-state agency $150 million to replace the 6,300 pre-2007 trucks in the fleet. The Port Authority only committed $1.2 million, which along with $9 million from the federal government, would be enough to deal with six percent of the polluting rigs.
“We are advancing the requirements of the Truck Replacement Program,” said spokesperson Amanda Kwan. “It is in the new 2023 tariffs that we implemented Jan. 1 – the truck provisions are effective in July. We will phase out the next set of older trucks and moving the age of new drayage truck registrants from 2010 engines to 2014 engines.”
According to the EPA, a $100 million dollar investment in voluntary retrofitting for the pre-2007 diesel truck fleet nationally would generate $2 billion in health benefits from reduced premature deaths, hospital visits and other costs associated with diesel emission exposure.
It is the poor working-class neighborhoods of color in and around the Port’s sprawling cargo handling facilities in Newark and Elizabeth that bear the brunt of these deadly emissions. These are the same kinds of places where health disparities, as well documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, already take a toll in terms of higher infant mortality, shorter life expectancy and a higher incidence of chronic illness.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the 2007 breakthrough in diesel technology that reduced these deadly toxic emissions by over 90 percent, and what that could mean for the neighborhoods with a high volume of truck traffic.
These emissions are not good for anybody, but they pose even greater risk to children, whose lungs are still developing, and to the elderly, who may have pre-existing respiratory problems that these emissions greatly exacerbate. There’s also a significant occupational health risks that can mean pre-mature deaths for essential workers in the transportation sector that’s now also dealing with the fallout from COVID and long COVID. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, dock workers, truckers, and railroad workers who face chronic exposure to diesel emissions have a 20 to 50 percent increased risk of lung cancer mortality.
“So, it includes particles which we see when soot is coming out of the tailpipe,” according to Dr. Laumbach. “But a lot of those particles we can’t see. They are invisible they are so small, and those very small particles are the ones that we are particularly concerned about because they can get deep in the lungs. These small particles get into the lungs, and they can cause irritation. They can cause the worsening of asthma,” says Laumbach. They can cause new onset asthma, meaning asthma in someone who has not had asthma before as a new chronic disease. They also contribute to heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.”
In addition to the particles, Laumbach says the emissions include “gases like nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxides, formaldehyde, benzene, and a number of those are carcinogens that cause cancer.”
For Newark activist Gaddy the bi-state agency’s reversal was disappointing. All of Gaddy’s three children have asthma, something all too common in Newark, where she says as many as one in six children are similarly afflicted.
“I was quite floored that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did not respect the health of Newarkers and decided that because of money they are not going to follow through with the plan,” says Gaddy. “And so now my life, my children’s life, you have put a price on their head saying they are not good enough for us to save their lives because we can’t afford to remove these older trucks. I think that is an injustice to all the residents in this City of Newark and I think the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a bad neighbor.”
Gaddy says asthma exacts a high toll on Newark families. “It is the number one reason for absenteeism,” Gaddy says. “You complain that our children are not being educated but some of them have to miss school because they are sick and their parents have to take off of work so now they are losing money and they can’t pay their bills and so it is all tied in.”
Consider that back in 2012 the Ports of Los Angles and Long Beach banned all pre-2007 diesel rigs. “The municipality, the Mayor, the Port Commission and private investors all decided ‘hey this was important’—too many lives are at stake we are right next to communities,” says Gaddy. “We have to take on this responsibility to save the lives of our residents.”
CLEARING THE AIR
By 2018, the Port of Los Angeles emissions were down an unprecedented 60 percent compared to 2005 emissions levels, their lowest level to date even as the port set records for the volume of cargo it handled. And according to a 2019 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that move along with other smog reduction efforts reduced new childhood asthma cases by 20 percent.
Climate change, the concept that the burning of fossil fuels like coal could add carbon dioxide gas to the planet’s atmosphere, was first advanced more than a half-century earlier in 1896 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhernius, according to Spencer Weart’s The History of Global Warming.
By the 1950s, thanks to Cold War induced anxiety about the weather and the seas “new studies showed that, contrary to earlier crude estimates, carbon dioxide could indeed build up in the atmosphere and should bring warming” and by 1960, thanks to “painstaking measurements” it was “that the level of the gas was in fact rising, year by year,” Weart writes.
In 2006, researchers from NYU’s School of Medicine and Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, made the alarming discovery after a five-year study that “soot particles spewing from the exhaust of diesel trucks constitute a major contributor to the alarmingly high rates of asthma symptoms among school-aged children in the South Bronx.”
14 years later, researchers from the Institute for Atmosphere and Climate at ETH Zurich discovered that “soot particles influence global warming more than previously thought.”
“The results show that the influence of ozone and sulfuric acid on soot aging alters cloud formation and, ultimately, the climate,” reported the Swiss National Supercomputing Center. “Burning wood, petroleum products or other organic materials releases soot particles into the atmosphere that consist mainly of carbon. This soot is considered the second most important anthropogenic climate forcing agent after carbon dioxide. In the atmosphere or as deposits on snow and ice surfaces, soot particles absorb the short-wave radiation of the sun and thus contribute to global warming.”
Here in New Jersey our 20th century brains maybe too compartmentalized to effectively sort through our 21st century challenges and the vested interests maybe just too entrenched. There’s some hope reflected for the future in what’s happening in California, where public health experts, climate scientists and the environmental justice movement appear to have clout where it counts.
So far, here in the Garden State can’t see how these challenges are all connected. Like binders in a notebook, there’s a section on addressing the deteriorating infrastructure, another for the environment, one for occupational health and yet another for public health. Yet, our most pressing challenges require we see how ALL these challenges are actually linked.
Find ways to address all of them at the same time and you will be building bridges that stand the test of time.