Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle two of the biggest crises the Lehigh Valley faces today: the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts climate change is having on our working families by voting for President Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
The plan would tackle climate change by investing trillions of dollars in infrastructure to create union jobs, jumpstarting our economy and helping to end the current high unemployment.
At least 40% of these investments would be geared toward Black and brown communities, helping to address disinvestment and generations of systemic racism that have long forced these communities to bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation.
These glaring inequities in our society were highlighted by the pandemic and the protests that erupted a year ago after the murder of George Floyd.
People of color are more likely to become infected with COVID-19 and suffer severe complications or die because of a lack of access to affordable health care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are also likelier to live in neighborhoods served by lead water pipes and where air is polluted by highways, factories and warehouses served by fleets of polluting trucks. At the same time, they work in jobs that are underpaid and struggle to enter the middle class.
The American Jobs Plan would tackle these problems by investing billions of dollars putting people to work building a 21st century electricity grid that is more resistant to climate change and that runs on clean, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. It would increase access to jobs weatherizing aging homes in places such as Allentown, reducing emissions while also lowering heating bills for working families. And it would improve air quality by building out electric vehicle charging infrastructure and enabling trash trucks and other municipal vehicles to switch away from diesel fuel.
At the same time, the American Jobs Plan would help us move beyond the relics of Pennsylvania’s industrial past, which concentrated negative environmental impacts in poorer neighborhoods. We must work to undo decades of pollution and ensure the benefits of these projects go to those who need it most.
Billions of dollars of investments must be targeted to remediate toxic Superfund sites that blight our neighborhoods. Congress must follow through on the president’s promise to replace every lead water pipe in older cities such as Allentown and Bethlehem — which lead our state in lead poisoning rates — that carries tainted water and puts children’s health at risk.
In recent years, the Lehigh Valley has become a less-expensive option for commuters seeking access to the New York City employment markets. But the region has been hampered by a lack of rail service to give commuters a convenient and green option that takes cars off the road. Pennsylvania hasn’t been able to fund these ambitious expansion plans on its own and needs help from the federal government.
Biden is proposing spending $85 billion on local transit systems, as well as another $80 billion for Amtrak. These funds could be used to finally bring this project, decades in the making, across the finish line. More public transportation will help improve Lehigh County’s air quality, which is the among the worst in the state and launch a new economic boom in the region.
In a closely divided Congress we’re going to need every vote to get this proposal through the legislative process and onto Biden’s desk for his signature. However, we also want to ensure that the final bill is bold enough to meet this moment and big enough to address the enormity of the climate crisis. Rep. Susan Wild (D-Lehigh) has already emerged as a strong champion for this proposal, arguing that bold action is necessary to address these twin crises.
She is joined by Gov. Wolf and elected officials across the commonwealth, who have sent a letter calling on Congress to quickly move on the American Jobs Plan because they recognize that action to address climate and racial inequity is nonnegotiable.
Key provisions of the plan are wildly popular among Pennsylvania voters, according to a new poll released by Data for Progress.
The time has come to be bold and pass these central legislative priorities to show that we can build a more equitable society as we emerge from this pandemic.
Maria C. Ocasio is Lehigh Valley field coordinator for Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania and PennFuture.