The Connecticut Capitol Building.
The Connecticut Statehouse in Hartford. Credit: GPA Photo Archive / Creative Commons

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Environmental justice activists told Connecticut lawmakers Monday that legislation authorizing the state to join the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative doesn’t go far enough to ensure equitable distribution of proceeds from the program. 

The bill, sponsored by Gov. Ned Lamont, would allow the state to join Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia in the cap-and-invest program designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

Beginning in 2023, wholesale fuel suppliers in each participating state would have to purchase “allowances” for the pollution created by their products. The number of allowances available at the quarterly auctions would be gradually reduced over time, with a goal of a 26% emissions reduction by 2032.

Proceeds from the auctions would be invested in further efforts to reduce air pollution, like electrifying buses and adding bike lanes. But many activists who testified in support of the Transportation and Climate Initiative told the environment committee that the enabling legislation needs to do more to ensure that proceeds will primarily benefit those communities most overburdened by air pollution and underserved by public transit. 

“We are asking you to prioritize funding for underserved communities, and give them a seat at the table in deciding where to spend funds,” said Michaela Barratt, a youth organizer for Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education (RACCE), an advocacy group for racial justice in Waterbury city schools.

The legislation currently calls for a minimum of 35% of the auction proceeds to be spent in overburdened and underserved communities. That’s the level agreed upon in the memorandum of understanding signed by the three states and D.C.

RACCE, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dream Corps Green For All, and the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress are among the organizations calling for Connecticut’s threshold to be raised to a minimum of 50%.

“Air pollution, primarily coming from transportation in Connecticut, is at its most unhealthy levels in communities that are the least responsible for it, including low-income and communities of color,” said Thomas Lefebvre, coordinator of Transport Hartford, in written testimony.

According to the National Equity Atlas, communities of color in Connecticut experience much higher air pollution exposure than white communities, with Black residents having the highest exposure.

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering legislation that would raise the minimum to 70%. 

Also at issue in Lamont’s bill is who will make the decisions around how those considerable funds are distributed. Connecticut is expected to receive an estimated $88.5 million in proceeds in the first year alone, and a total of $1 billion by 2032, according to Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which would be charged with developing regulations for the initiative. 

The bill calls for the creation of an “equity advisory board” to help guide the commissioners of the departments of Energy and Environmental Protection and Transportation on how to best spend the funds for an equitable outcome. It leaves it to the commissioners to select the board’s members, with a majority to come from overburdened and underserved communities, as determined by the commissioners.

Activists want a board with far more autonomy.

“We think the equity advisory board should be completely independent of any agency head,” Robert Goodrich, RACCE’s executive director, told the committee. “And it needs to be resourced properly, with tools, technology and even stipends so they can participate fully as members of a professional body.” 

In a phone interview, Goodrich said he believes the makeup of the board should be decided by the communities most impacted by pollution and a lack of transportation. And he said they should be able to come up with recommendations based on the lived experience of people in their communities, who won’t be best served by “prescribed interventions” from agency heads who live elsewhere. 

During the planning process for the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the pact was criticized for not doing enough to include the views of low-income and marginalized communities. The Sierra Club ultimately decided not to support the memorandum of understanding for that reason.

“To not have vulnerable communities there at the decision-making table was really problematic,” said Samantha Dynowski, director for Sierra Club Connecticut. “We encourage that their voices be centered in decision-making on the legislation and how the policy develops in Connecticut.”

Goodrich said he is hopeful that lawmakers will be receptive to their message, and “that they will see us not as agitators but as experts on this issue of racial justice, which they are not.” 

Tony Russell, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the agency has been engaging with environmental justice activists. 

“We are still working through the proposed changes and are confident that we can develop mutually agreeable language,” he said.

Lisa Prevost

Lisa Prevost is a longtime journalist based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." A native New Englander, Lisa covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.