The US DOT Failed Communities In Approving State Electric Vehicle Charging Plans
By Denise Abdul-Rahman
The federal government is currently giving states $7.5 billion to build a national network of over 500,000 public charging stations for electric cars, buses, and trucks. States are required to make their plans for spending this money equitable, to ensure the communities that suffer the most from transportation pollution benefit from the shift to clean, electric vehicles. The pollution that comes from gas-powered cars, buses and trucks causes up to 30,000 premature deaths each year, mostly from Black and brown communities.
The federal Department of Transportation recently approved all 50 state plans to build out a national charging network, despite calls that some of the states failed to address community concerns about where this money was headed. Indiana’s plan, for example, fails to explain how the state plans to equitably spend their federal funds, and state officials repeatedly ignored concerns raised by Black-owned businesses, racial justice advocates, and other equity-focused groups during the process of making the plan.
Indiana is slated to get over $100 million in federal funding via the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula program and this investment couldn’t come at a better time. Electric vehicle sales are at record highs, and states and countries are pledging to electrify all passenger vehicle sales by 2035, a move that will save drivers cash, create cleaner communities, and help avoid the climate crisis. Public charging networks must get built in tandem with the rapid rise in electric vehicle adoption to ensure drivers aren’t waiting to charge up along highways or when out and about.
President Biden’s Justice40 initiative requires that at least 40 percent of the benefits from clean energy infrastructure like electric vehicle charging stations go to disadvantaged communities, and federal Department of Transportation guidance suggests states “describe how [their] plan will address the Federal Government’s mission to provide equitable access to EV technologies [and] describe the state’s strategy to engage rural, underserved, and disadvantaged communities in the development of EV infrastructure and should focus on providing jobs for these communities, as well as ensuring access to EV stations.”
The plan submitted by the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) neither hits the Justice40 initiative nor adheres to the federal DOT guidance. INDOT should have invited the input of the individuals and groups most impacted by transportation pollution in the state, but INDOT only held three in-person public meetings in majority white areas, and it is unclear what percentage of those who responded to an INDOT survey were ethnically diverse people.
INDOT’s plan would also ensure that 60 percent of the charging stations would be in disadvantaged or rural communities. But “disadvantaged” can mean many things — it doesn’t have to mean racial or ethnic diversity and Black communities disproportionately suffer from transportation-related pollution and therefore have the most to gain from electric vehicles and other clean transportation options. INDOT’s failure to be explicit about the definition of “disadvantaged” is in violation of a state law passed earlier this year requiring utilities that install chargers as part of a state pilot program in areas where “racially or ethnically diverse” communities have access to them.
Failing to prioritize electric vehicle charging stations in Indiana’s Black communities would create two Indianas — one where people can easily charge an electric car or pickup truck and breathe cleaner air, and another where children are rushed to emergency rooms because of asthma attacks triggered by roadway pollution. This is why the Indiana Alliance for Equity Diversity and Inclusion for Electric Vehicle and Economic Opportunities, a cohort of Black-owned businesses, faith institutions, non-profits, and civil rights groups, called on the federal Department of Transportation to reject INDOT’s plan based on a lack of measures to ensure an equitable distribution of electric vehicle infrastructure — but these calls were met with silence from the federal government and a pro forma letter from the state DOT that tried to justify an unjustifiable plan. Meanwhile, Indiana already received $5 million in federal funding to purchase clean school buses, but the more polluted and diverse communities in the state are largely left out.
Our country has a legacy of racist transportation planning and decisions. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg himself said that racism was a “conscious choice” in the planning and construction of America’s highway system, and transportation remains riddled with inequities. The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula program is an opportunity to learn from and correct these mistakes, not repeat them. The federal officials must listen to the concerns raised by the Indiana NAACP and others in the fight for transportation justice and push state DOTs to ensure these federal funds are spent with the advice and consent of the communities they impact. It’s only by redressing the injustices past and present that we can create a more equitable, and healthy future.
Denise Abdul-Rahman is a volunteer with the Indiana chapter of the NAACP and is representing a coalition of Black-led groups and advocates in the state.