This article is a joint effort from MEDA and Chispa Maryland.
Tyrese Robinson is a Prince George’s County special-education teacher, Mount Rainer resident, and mother of four. Like many, she didn’t think much about the quality of air in her community – until her 9-year-old daughter started experiencing severe, recurring, asthma attacks. After her daughter was hospitalized yet again because of trouble breathing, Tyrese began to make the connection between air pollution in her community and her daughter’s illness. In the end, it was clear to Tyrese that the health of her children was directly impacted by the pollution of the environment in which they were living.
Ground-level ozone and air-borne pollution — from sources including industrial and commuter traffic — are the most harmful air pollutants in Prince George’s County and the Washington DC Metropolitan Area. Medical research confirms that exposure to air pollutants from transportation sources can reduce lung function and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, infant mortality, cancer, and the very same asthmas attacks with which Tyrese is all too familiar. Asthma is the leading cause of school absences for children and adolescents, which inhibits students’ productivity and success in the classroom.
In order to protect the health of our communities and move towards a truly sustainable future, we must do everything we can to reduce harmful carbon emissions, including those from the transportation sector. Emissions from vehicle tailpipes are one of the largest contributors to dangerous climate- and health-impacting pollutants in Maryland. Meaningfully reducing carbon emissions will require not just continued work on the transition to clean energy, but also the transition to electric transportation, which produces no tailpipe emissions. The Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund and the Maryland utilities’ joint proposal to invest in electric vehicle charging stations are two key moving pieces that could accelerate transportation electrification in our state.
As a result of a 2015 scandal over emissions-reductions fraud, Volkswagen Motors was ordered to set up the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund and provide more that $75 million in funding to Maryland. This funding is to reduce carbon emissions by supporting widespread transportation electrification. These funds should be reinvested in local communities and school districts, with emphasis on lower-income communities and/or communities of color where students and families face disproportionately high risks of air pollution. Transitioning dirty diesel school buses to clean, zero-emissions electric buses will benefit the more than 623,000 school children that ride them to and from school every weekday. Electrified buses will also benefit residents that live in neighborhoods along bus-routes, and those that live near Maryland’s many bus yards, in which buses frequently are left to ‘idle’ with their engines on, creating toxic clouds of diesel fumes.
Additionally, the Maryland Public Service Commission is currently considering a joint proposal by the state’s utilities to build a network of electric vehicle charging-stations throughout the state. Building a network of charging stations, just like gas stations, is crucial to supporting the widespread adoption of electric vehicles in our state. The utility proposal is one outcome of the Commission’s grid modernization proceeding, which is considering upgrades to make Maryland’s electricity system more environmentally sustainable, customer-centric, and generally bring it into the 21st century.
Chispa Maryland, a program of Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ Education Fund, launched the Clean Buses for Healthy Niños campaign last year after identifying Volkswagen settlement funds available for states’ use. This campaign is building momentum to ensure that communities — particularly communities of color — no longer suffer the negative health consequences of diesel school bus emissions. With support from residents like Tyrese, we took our campaign to the Prince George’s County Council, which approved a resolution to request that Governor Hogan dedicate that Volkswagen Trust funding to the purchase of electric, zero-emissions school buses. And we will continue working with the County Council to secure their commitment to transition the entire fleet of dirty diesel school buses to clean, zero-emissions electric transport.
Electric buses are costly to purchase at the outset, but they cost 30% less to maintain than diesel vehicles and reduce pollutant emissions by almost 80%. Replacing one diesel bus with an electric counterpart is equivalent to taking 27 cars off the road, and can save $11,000 per year in operating costs. Combined with the Public Service Commission’s planned charging-station network, the County Council resolution sets the stage for a massive shift that will deliver tremendous benefits for the health of our planet, our communities and our children.
Maryland has made amazing progress towards sustainability and the incorporation of more clean energy. But much work remains to be done. Residents must maintain pressure on policymakers and representatives to make investments that will safeguard our children’s healthy future. Continuing with ‘business as usual’ means dangerous emissions from the transportation sector, which will only reinforce the adverse health effects to which communities, especially those of color, are exposed. It is imperative that Prince George’s County commit to transitioning to clean transportation in order to achieve a sustainable, prosperous, clean energy future.