A CT Transit bus in downtown Hartford (CTNewsJunkie)

Just days after Gov. Ned Lamont indicated he would not pursue legislative approval for the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) in Connecticut, a group of panelists participating in the annual Northeast Multimodal Transit Summit said they would find a different way to address health disparities from air pollution. 

Northeast Multimodal Transit Summit 2021 flyer

At the summit hosted by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress, state leaders said they will continue to look for ways to address air pollution, including making electric vehicles more widely available and affordable, expanding transportation options to people so they have an alternative to cars, and keeping sidewalks and roadways safe in urban areas.

Sen. Christine Cohen, co-chair of the legislature’s Environment Committee, said she will work together with colleagues on the Transportation Committee to push Connecticut toward cleaner air. 

“We will continue to put our heads together,” Cohen said. She said she would like to pursue legislation that would address emissions for medium and heavy duty vehicles, a measure that didn’t make it out of the House of Representatives last session. 

Dr. Mark Mitchell, an associate professor at George Mason University, said he became concerned about disparities that would hit lower income and people of color. 

“I noticed the diseases. Although most diseases were decreasing in frequency, those related to the environment were increasing in frequency,” Mitchell said. “These were diseases accounting for most of the disparities between the life expectancy of African Americans and Latinos versus those of whites in Connecticut as well as nationally at that time.” 

Conditions resulting from air pollution include asthma and other respiratory conditions, and there have been links to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Mitchell said. He added that opinions from people of color and low-income communities are generally not taken into account when developing and implementing environmental health policy despite how they’re impacted by the health and safety hazards posed by pollution and traffic. 

Hartford ranks 8th in the nation in the percentage of households that don’t have a car, with New Haven ranked 11th, Mitchell said.  According to 2019 census figures, 8.7% of households in America do not have access to a vehicle. 

“As you know, the major urban highways intersect in the middle of urban areas,” Mitchell said. “They bring an increased amount of pollution. They divide up the neighborhoods.” 

He said these residents and the state could benefit from a transportation system that is good enough so that cars can be left at home. 

“If we address transportation-related greenhouse gases, we can also address transportation-related air pollution and transportation-related health impacts,” Mitchell said. He cited the 1996 Olympics, which were held in Atlanta, GA. “They closed the downtown area to all automobile traffic. They only allowed public transit downtown. Emergency room rates dropped dramatically.”

Mitchell said options can be lowering bus fares, investing in bike lanes and improving bus service. TCI included an Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Board, something Mitchell said could still be created even without TCI. 

Katie Dykes, Commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the organization has 14 air quality monitors around the state, and that they register air pollution levels that are around 20 percent higher than in suburban communities. 

Despite what has happened with TCI, Dykes said, nothing has changed as far as the state’s obligation to reduce greenhouse emissions

“We continue to see emissions from the transportation sector actually increasing, a modest amount, but even a modest increase is problematic,” Dykes said. 

Cohen said she would like to see more partnerships with private entities to bring things like e-scooters and electric bikes for the public to use in Connecticut. 

Recent federal legislation regarding the nation’s infrastructure will provide funds to help put the state on the right course, Cohen said. 

“This might just scratch the surface of what we need. It is huge for the state of Connecticut,” Cohen said. 

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed the infrastructure bill which will bring nearly $6 billion to Connecticut. Some of that money could be used to fix the I-84 and I-91 interchange in Hartford and fund intermodal transportation and public transit. 

But the public doesn’t want to get left out of the discussion about which projects get funded. They also want to know what’s going on when a project gets going. 

Communication between communities and state agencies overseeing construction didn’t always occur, according to Kevin Burnham, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation. But that is something that has changed in the way the state evaluates projects, including highway work on I-84. 

Burnham discussed infrastructure plans and how to get communities involved in the process during a separate forum. 

Michael Morehouse, vice president, FHI Studio – a Hartford-based engineering consultant company, said the community can include residents and environmental justice representatives. 

“We’re trying very hard to include input from everybody,” Morehouse said. He said the public has definitely requested better rail service and local transportation – such as bus systems and times – so there wouldn’t be such a reliance on their own transportation, which oftentimes means getting stuck in congested traffic throughout the Hartford region.

This story was underwritten by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford. Underwriting is payment for journalism without the story being pre-approved by the underwriter.