Building bridges to the future: Infrastructure, the climate crisis and the pandemic

Over the next five years, all 50 states are set to get $350 billion for highway construction thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2022, 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 no longer that simple. Now when we are thinking about building structures near the sea, or over rivers and bays, we have to thinking not just about where that water is now, but where it will be decades from now.

Those answers, of course, depend on our ability to control 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 think about the health impacts on communities where we site massive infrastructure that carries 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 Dwight Eisenhower was president and the first interstate highways were built. In just the last few years, there’s ample evidence that the climate crisis is accelerating, while the COVID pandemic has become a health crisis of indefinite duration, in which widespread infectious disease has become a kind of permanent wallpaper, something we’re told we have to just live with.

It can be difficult to see how all these stress points are connected, especially when doing so challenges the established economic power structure that supports our political leadership through campaign contributions.

COVID: More than a speed bump?

As the daily death count from COVID has settled into the hundreds, rather than the thousands, the resolve to address the racial and socioeconomic disparities the pandemic exposed has pretty much faded. It’s been sidelined by the imperative of growing the economy and building wealth. This “moving on” is largely accomplished through compartmentalization, via thematic press releases that appear to give voice to concerns while avoiding any concrete action.

“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 Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey back in October of 2021, when he signed legislation establishing the COVID Pandemic Task Force on Racial and Health Disparities. No doubt this task force will meet its statutory obligation and issue a report that can be shelved alongside all other such well-meaning reports — but will it have any real impact on a society very much dedicated to getting back to “business as usual”?

Last weekend the New York Times published a lengthy analysis about how various locales were sorting out which road and bridge projects to undertake amid the ever-worsening climate crisis. This ambitious, graphic rich feature posed a provocative question: “Widening Highways Doesn’t Fix Traffic. So Why Do We Keep Doing It?”

As the daily death count from COVID has settled into the hundreds, rather than the thousands, the resolve to address the racial and socioeconomic disparities the pandemic exposed has largely faded.

It has long been established that building more highway lanes only makes traffic worse, but as the Times reported, many local transportation boards still cling to that failed strategy. The article 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 cancellation of a proposed widening of Interstate 710 in Los Angeles with a similar project supported by the Murphy administration along the stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike that runs from the Holland Tunnel over Newark Bay, adjoining the busy port complex. Superficially, the two roadways are similar: “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. The Times analysis did not discuss the well-documented linkage between the diesel particulate matter generated by truck traffic and higher infant mortality, shorter life expectancy and 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 one-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 premature deaths annually.

Dr. Bob Laumbach is a physician and a 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 said in a phone interview.

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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 factors related to social vulnerability are all clustered together with diesel and other air pollution, along with COVID and many other health outcomes.”

The cancellation of the I-710 expansion in L.A. reflected a 21st-century recalibration that New Jersey, at least at the moment, appears incapable of making.

“The location of this major trucking route … is emblematic of a historical pattern of negligent U.S. transportation policy,” according to a description of the 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.'”

Proximity to high traffic volume has significant health consequences: Even at moderate levels, particulate matter can damage the short- and long-term health of children, seniors and anyone with respiratory illness.

That 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 the I-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 California transportation officials. Now, the Times reports, the state is looking at encouraging shifting freight to rail, spending money on improving air filtration is schools and “providing better access to green spaces and investing in a zero-emissions truck program.”

Catching up, or piling on? 

Meanwhile, New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Dianne Gutierrez-Scaccetti advocated for the $10.7 billion turnpike project, telling the Times that she did not support widening roads just for the sake of doing so, but insisting that the expansion was needed to accommodate new residential and commercial development as well as to ensure the Port of Newark remains viable.

There has already been 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 strongly echo those of people living in the I-710 corridor.

In a response to a query from InsiderNJ, Newark resident Kim Gaddy, the national environmental justice director for Clean Water Action, wrote that “expanding the Turnpike in Hudson County adds insult to injury in already overburdened communities”:

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 that his administration was eager to balancing New Jersey’s economic interest with the state’s 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.

“With projects of this magnitude, we will continue to prioritize residents’ health and safety while considering short- and long-term environmental concerns,” the governor continued. “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 the health effects from the truck emissions generated on New Jersey’s heavy freight corridors for decades can anticipate little respite in the future. In Trenton, as in most other state capitals, commerce comes first because it’s what fuels and sustains our politics.

The dangerous particles “we can’t see”

Consider the decision in 2016 by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reverse its 2010 pledge to ban all diesel trucks manufactured before 2007, when federal truck engine regulations kicked in, which would have meant a major reduction in highly toxic diesel emissions.

In 2010, then-Port Authority chairman Anthony Coscia hailed the move as a sign that the agency “would build on our legacy as good environmental stewards.” Six years later, in rationalizing the backslide, a Port Authority spokesman blamed sticker shock, telling a New Jersey newspaper it would cost the agency $150 million to replace the 6,300 pre-2007 trucks in the fleet. The Port Authority had only committed $1.2 million, which along with $9 million from the federal government, was enough to replace just 6 percent of the polluting rigs.

According to the EPA, a $100 million investment in retrofitting 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.

When the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey backed away from a 2010 promise to ban old diesel trucks with high levels of toxic emissions, it effectively decided that higher infant mortality and shorter life expectancy was less important than money.

It is poor working-class neighborhoods of color in and around the Port of Newark’s sprawling cargo handling facilities 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, which reduced deadly toxic emissions by over 90 percent, and what that could mean for neighborhoods with a high volume of truck traffic.

Such emissions are harmful to everyone, but pose greater risks to children, whose lungs are still developing, and to the elderly, who may have pre-existing respiratory problems that these emissions greatly exacerbate. There are also significant occupational health risks that can mean premature deaths for essential workers in the transportation sector, which is also dealing with the effects of 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.

“It includes particles which we see when soot is coming out of the tailpipe,” said Dr. Laumbach. “But a lot of those particles we can’t see. They are invisible, and those very small particles are the ones we are particularly concerned about because they can get deep in the lungs and cause irritation. They can cause the worsening of asthma. They can cause new-onset asthma, in someone who has not had asthma before as a chronic disease. They also contribute to heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.”

In addition to the particles, Laumbach said that diesel emissions include “gases like nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxides, formaldehyde and benzene. A number of those are carcinogens that cause cancer.”

For Newark activist Gaddy, the Port Authority’s reversal was disappointing. All three of her children have asthma, she said, 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,” Gaddy said. “So now — my life, my children’s lives, you have put a price on their heads 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 the city of Newark, and I think the Port Authority is a bad neighbor.”

Asthma exacts a high toll on Newark families, Gaddy said: “It is the No. 1 reason for absenteeism [in school]. 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 work so now they are losing money and can’t pay their bills. So it is all tied in.”

As far back as 2012, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach banned all pre-2007 diesel rigs. “The municipality, the mayor, the Port Commission and private investors all decided, ‘Hey, this is important — too many lives are at stake, we are right next to communities. We have to take on this responsibility to save the lives of our residents,'” Gaddy said.

Clearing the air 

By 2018, emissions at the Port of Los Angeles were down an unprecedented 60 percent compared to 2005, their lowest level to date even as the port set records for the volume of cargo it handled. 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 in the area by 20 percent.

The theory of climate change, and the concept that the burning of fossil fuels could add carbon dioxide gas to the planet’s atmosphere, was first advanced in 1896 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhernius, according to Spencer Weart’s “The History of Global Warming.” By the 1950s, Weart writes, “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 clear “that the level of the gas was in fact rising, year by year.” 

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.”

Fourteen years after that, 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.”

Perhaps in New Jersey our political brains are compartmentalized in the 20th century, or the vested interests are simply too entrenched. There’s some hope for the future visible in what’s happening in California, where public health experts, climate scientists and the environmental justice movement appear to have clout where it counts.

Political leaders in the Garden State apparently can’t yet see how these challenges are all connected. It’s like binders in a notebook: There’s a section on addressing the deteriorating infrastructure, another on the environment, another about occupational health and yet another one for broader questions of public health. Yet our most pressing challenges require that we perceive how all these challenges are interconnected. Address all of them at the same time, and you can build bridges that will stand the test of time.

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