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Infrastructure

Ivey: “There is no pathway forward” for Mobile River Bridge and Bayway replacement

Brandon Moseley

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On Wednesday, local Baldwin County elected officials voted “effectively” to kill the Mobile River Bridge project. The Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) met to vote on its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), which establishes the area’s transportation priorities from 2020 to 2023.

For a decade, Mobile and Baldwin County officials have been asking federal and state officials for an Interstate 10 bridge over the Mobile River to relieve traffic congestion for motorists going back and forth between the two coastal counties. Currently I-10 drops into the Wallace Tunnels to go under the Mobile River.

On Wednesday the Eastern Shores MPO voted 8 to 1 to remove the controversial Mobile River Bridge and Bayway replacement project from their TIP priority list. The TIP list is important; because no federal funds can lawfully be spent on a project that local governments do not want. Since ALDOT receives federal matching dollars, removing the project from Baldwin County’s TIP project is a mortal blow for the project.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) had made the Mobile River Bridge a top priority of her administration. The Governor declared the project “dead.”

“With the action taken today, there is no pathway forward, and this project is dead,” Gov. Ivey said. “Moreover, without a project, there is no need for a meeting on October 7. I am thereby cancelling the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority meeting.”

The project was already on life support after the Mobile MPO took it off of their TIP list last week temporarily until after the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority meeting in October. The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) plan was to finance the $2.1 billion public works project by tolling the users.

In May just about every public official in SW Alabama was for the bridge. After ALDOT revealed their newer, bigger, fancier, far more costly bridge plan, and the public, who was paying for this modern engineering marvel, weighed in just about every public official in SW Alabama and statewide was opposed to the bridge if it were paid for with tolls.

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ALDOT Director John Cooper famously told residents and politicians alike that if there was not tolls there would be no bridge. The SW Alabama public, and the people they elect, overwhelmingly chose no bridge over paying a six one way toll. Even ALDOT’s later proposal of unlimited bridge usage for $90 a month prepaid did nothing to put out the firestorm of public outrage.

The Tea Party led a coalition that grew quickly to include the Baldwin County Democratic Party, the Alabama Libertarian Party, the entire Mobile County legislative delegation, every congressional candidate, the Baldwin County Mayors, County Commissioners, every U.S. Senate candidate, and included public officials who have been fighting for a Mobile River Bridge for the last decade. The public did not want a toll bridge and ALDOT had no other way to fund this project.

Many Mobile County residents work in stores, motels, and restaurants in the booming Eastern Shores area of Baldwin County, and they did not want to pay the $6 one-way two to four times a day. They pressured their Mobile elected officials on the MPO to stop the project. Last week the Mobile MPO removed the bridge from their TIP list until after October 7; however as any casual observer of I-10 traffic patterns already knows, far more Baldwin County residents go to work in Mobile County than the other way around and Baldwin County has its own metropolitan planning organization, the Eastern Shores MPO.

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While tolling the Mobile River Bridge was unpopular in Mobile County, the plan was despised by Baldwin County residents.

Every local Baldwin County elected official on the Eastern Shores MPO voted in favor of removing the bridge and Bayway from the TIP list. The only vote against removing the bridge from the came from an engineer employed by ALDOT.

Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth (R) is one of nine members on the Alabama Toll Road, Bridge, and Tunnel Authority. Ainsworth had already announced that he was voting against the plan if it ever made it to the Toll Authority.

“Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood and the members of the Eastern Shore MPO should be commended for listening to the citizens they represent, giving voice to their concerns, and voting to end the ill-conceived and fatally-flawed toll bridge project connecting Baldwin and Mobile counties,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “The strong stand taken by the MPO today should reaffirm all citizens’ belief in representative government and the power of public opinion.”

The project appeared to be moving full steam ahead with no problems at all for the first five months of this year. The legislature passed the largest gas tax in state history to give ALDOT another $310 million a year as well as special legislation modernizing the toll authority, allowing ALDOT to enter into public private partnerships (P3s) for infrastructure projects, expanding tax breaks for companies operating in Opportunity Zones (the Mobile River Bridge is in an O-Zone), and giving private toll operators the authority to suspend a motorist’s driving privileges if they don’t pay their toll bill sailed through the legislature with bipartisan support led by members of the Baldwin and Mobile legislative delegations.

While there was no significant opposition in the legislature; the reporting by the Alabama Political Reporter (and other outlets) about the details of the legislation was noticed in South Alabama by grassroots activists, the general public, and political operatives alike.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) announced his opposition to the plan and formed a Facebook group committed to the idea that the bridge and the existing Wallace Tunnels should not be tolled, even if that means the project is not built.

“We started this campaign against the Alabama toll bridge on May 12 with one member – me,” Zeigler said in a statement. “At that time, people told me, “You’re wasting your time. This is a done deal. There’s nothing you can do.”

“Fortunately, I did not believe that we were helpless and hopeless,” the popular State Auditor said. “Also, our 54,000 new members did not believe we were hopeless. Now, the done deal is a dead deal.”

Powerful corporations and business interests had been pushing for the bridge for years to get cargo in and out of the Port of Mobile, which is being expanded with an expensive deeper wider shipping channel to handle large ships. Every elected official had voiced support for the bridge back when the cost was just $800 million a year and the tolls were going to be $2 or less. Legislators were told that the average motorist spends more money on fuel stuck in I-10 traffic than the tolls would have cost so would save money.

After the 2019 legislative session was over, ALDOT unveiled a new proposal. Not the $800 million bridge and Bayway widening presented to legislators before; but a taller larger bridge with a viewing platform, bike lanes, and a total Bayway replacement. The $2.1 billion project would be paid for with $6 tolls for the next 55 years. The existing Wallace Tunnels would also be tolled, and three corporate conglomerates would bid on the contract to build the costly structure, the largest of its kind in North America, and collect the toll revenue. An already skeptical public erupted and popular support for the bridge evaporated almost overnight. Elected officials who had fought for the project, in some cases for years, now became outspoken public opponents as Zeigler’s growing bipartisan grassroots opposition group grew exponentially over the summer. A later ALDOT proposal to cap total toll costs for residents at $90 a month per vehicle did little to satisfy opponents.

On Tuesday the governor sent a letter to the Baldwin County Commissioners and Mayors offering to work with them and to look for additional funding to try to build the bridge with reduced or no tolling if that was possible. The Governor told APR that the bridge was critical for the infrastructure of the state.

“The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is critical – not only to Mobile and Baldwin Counties, but the entire Gulf Coast Region – and would be important for the continued growth of all of Alabama,” Ivey told APR hours before the meeting. “The Eastern Shore MPO’s decision today will be to continue exploring all options to move this project forward. My Administration’s goal is to find an agreed-upon plan that both the Mobile and Eastern Shore MPOs can approve. Their support is essential to create a pathway to continue the procurement process.”

Toll bridge opponents had the momentum and the attention of their elected officials and they were not interested in any compromise.

“We reject this fake compromise,” Zeigler said of the Governor’s offer to negotiate prior to the meeting. “It does nothing toward a No Toll option. On behalf of our 54,000 members, we ask the Eastern Shore MPO to stay strong and remove the toll plan from the TIP plan at the 2 p.m. meeting in Fairhope.”

After a four hour and twenty minute MPO meeting filled with toll opponents, the Eastern Shores MPO agreed with the protestors and voted to kill the bridge.

The question today is what happens next?

“We are starting a ‘Lazarus Project’ to make sure that the toll scheme does not rise again,” Zeigler said.

State Representative Matt Simpson (R-Mobile) told Capital Journal’s Don Daly that ALDOT should rethink the project and scale it back to $700 or $800 million without a Bayway replacement and wait to see what Congress and Trump or the new President does on infrastructure in 2021.

“The fact remains, however, that Alabama’s Gulf Coast region is experiencing explosive population growth, and traffic congestion throughout the area will only worsen with time,” Ainsworth said. “I urge Director Cooper and his ALDOT staff to go back to the drawing board and come back with a more sensible and scaled down bridge proposal that releases traffic pressure without the need for tolling the hardworking residents of our state.”

Ivey said simply, “There is no pathway forward.”

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Infrastructure

Alabama’s Black Belt lacks quality internet access, report finds

Twenty-two of 24 Black Belt counties are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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During an online video briefing Monday on a report about a lack of internet access in Alabama’s Black Belt, University of Alabama student Brad Glover warned reporters that he could get kicked off the briefing at any moment. 

That’s because he was talking during the video briefing by way of audio only, using his cell phone, as he does not have access to high-speed internet access at his Linden, Alabama, home in the Black Belt’s Marengo County. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that sent students home to study online left many in the Black Belt and other rural parts of Alabama in the lurch, without access to the high-speed internet enjoyed by so many other Americans, according to the latest report in the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center’s Black Belt 2020 series. 

The latest report, titled “Internet Access Disparities in Alabama & the Black Belt,” found that 22 of 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the Education Policy Center, are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

“It is still a terrible struggle for me to connect to get the things done that are required,” said Glover, who interned with the Education Policy Center. 

Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center, said that in the 1930s, nine of ten rural homes lacked the electric service that urban American homes, by that point, had for 40 years. 

“The Rural Electrification Act was passed to address this abject market failure,” Katsinas said. “Today, as the COVID pandemic has shown, access to high-speed internet is as essential to rural Alabama as the REA was in the 1930s. Alabama must directly address the market failures that exist today to bring high-speech internet to every rural Alabamian, so that our rural workforce can access the lifelong learning skills they need, and our rural businesses can compete globally.” 

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The COVID-19 pandemic has also spotlighted the need to expand the growing area of telemedicine. 

Dr. Eric Wallace, medical director of Telehealth at UAB, told reporters during the briefing Monday that patients are largely doing telehealth from their homes, and explained that disparities in access to high-speed internet present a problem for them. 

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, UAB has done approximately 230,000 telehealth visits, and 60 percent of those were done by video,” Wallace said. 

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“Forty percent are audio only, and why is audio only? It’s because we do not have broadband,” Wallace said. “So it’s not just broadband. It’s broadband. It’s tech literacy. Socioeconomics, to have a device in your home. It’s all of that.”

Wallace said that the coronavirus crisis has made clear that telemedicine is a “100 percent necessity” and that patient satisfaction studies make clear it’s not going anywhere. 

The reasons for disparities in access to high-speed internet are myriad, explained Noel Keeney, one of the authors of the report and a graduate research assistant at the Education Policy Center. 

Keeney noted a study by BroadbandNow that estimates there are 154 internet providers in Alabama, but there are 226,000 Alabamians living in counties without a single provider, and 632,000 in counties with just a single provider. 

Even for those with access to internet providers, Keeney said that just approximately 44.4 percent of Alabamians have internet access at a cost of $60 monthly or below. 

“If we really care about our rural areas, we need to make an investment, and it needs to cut off that cost at a very low rate,” Wallace said. 

Katsnias said there’s a growing consensus on the part of Alabama’s political leaders that access to high-speed internet is an important issue, noting that Gov. Kay Ivey in March 2018, signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which has given internet access to nearly 100,000 Alabama students. 

“In March, Gov. Ivey awarded $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants, with a significant amount going to Black Belt communities,” the report reads. “This was followed by $5.1 million in additional grants in May.” 

“The State of Alabama also allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act-related dollars for “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels to increase access for K-12 students undergoing distance learning,” the report continues. 

An additional $100 million in CARES Act funds were made available to facilitate virtual learning across Alabama’s K-12 schools, researchers wrote in the report, and another $72 million in federal aid went to the state’s colleges and universities. 

Katsinas said however those federal funds are spent, the state still needs a long term plan for how to address the disparities in access to high-speed internet. 

“We need a long term plan and we need to do what we can do immediately,” Katsinas said

Read more of the Education Policy Center’s reports in the “Black Belt 2020” series here.

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Environment

ADEM director weighs-in on coal ash pond closures

APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

Bill Britt

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ADEM Director Lance LeFleur

Over the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold public hearings on the regulated closures of three coal combustion residuals storage sites, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds.

While ADEM receives high marks from federal regulators and businesses within Alabama, there is always a certain skepticism that surrounds environmental issues both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

Recently, APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

“I know that there’s skepticism about government,” LeFleur said. “And it’s healthy to have skepticism about government, state governments, local government, federal government. Skepticism is part of how we operate.” But LeFleur wants the public to know that ADEM’s first purpose is Alabamians’ health and safety.

“Our mission is to ensure for all Alabamians a safe, healthful and productive environment,” LeFleur said. “It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.”

LeFleur says while there are many competing sides to the issues that arise from coal ash disposal, ADEM must focus on “science and the laws.”

According to LeFleur, there are two primary issues that must be addressed when closing coal ash ponds: “avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.”

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EPA does not classify coal residue as hazardous waste, but LeFleur says that all closures must ensure dangerous elements are not leaching down into the groundwater.

“I think there’s pretty much unanimous opinion that these coal ash ponds need to be closed; they need to be closed properly,” said LeFleur. “And we need to clean up the groundwater that’s in place.”

He says that the entire process will take decades, but the power companies have committed to safely closing the coal ash ponds. “We are dealing with power companies that are going to be around for a long time. And they, they are obligated to get the result right,” said LeFleur.

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Alabama currently has 14 regulated CCR units at eight sites throughout the state. They are comprised of 10 unlined surface impoundments, one lined landfill, one lined surface impoundment all closed, and two lined landfills still in operation.

Public hearings are a significant part of the permit granting process, according to LeFleur, and ADEM’s website allows any individual to review every document and comment about a coal ash pond’s closing.

“You can see all of the comments that we received,” LeFleur said. “Every issue raised during the comment period and written response to comments are available.” ADEM’s website also includes the closure plans as well as all correspondence between agency and utility companies.

According to ADEM, the purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups, and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.

“This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plan —including the CCR unit closure component— and answer residents’ questions,” said LeFleur.

Closing a unit requires months of planning with ADEM engineers to make sure all procedures are followed correctly. Federal rules for closing CCRs have only been around since April 2015, when EPA released final measures for management and disposal of CCRs from electric utilities. In 2018, ADEM issued its state CCR rule, which closely tracks the federal regulations.

Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the EPA has allowed for coal ash sites to be closed by two methods — closure in place and by removal.

Alabama’s utilities have chosen the cap in place method. Some environmental groups prefer removal. But estimates say that moving CCRs from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry would take around 30 years with trucks leaving the site every six minutes.

“Regardless of which method of closure is used, that process will take a couple of years to accomplish at these sites,” said LeFleur. “If it’s kept in place, the material has been de-watered then pushed together to create a smaller footprint, and then that will be covered with an impervious cover.”

The objective, according to ADEM, is to protect the groundwater and the environment from pollution.

Power providers and environmentalists seem to agree there isn’t a perfect solution. Public hearings are to ensure that community voices and those of environmentalists are heard.

“This entire process is designed to stop contamination to groundwater and future contamination to groundwater; those are the most important facts now,” said LeFleur. “There are always political issues, you know, at least two sides, and sometimes there’s three, four or five sides. We focus on science and the laws. That’s what we do.”

While ADEM has its critics, it receives a high rating from the EPA, and an annual survey by the Alabama Department of Commerce finds that it gets top marks from business and industry in the state.

ADEM’s first public hearing on coal ash permits will be held Tuesday, Oct. 20, for Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant in west Jefferson County. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the West Jefferson Town Hall. Other upcoming hearings are Thursday, Oct. 22, for Plant Greene County located in Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County.

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Infrastructure

USDA awards $3 million in grants for Alabama distance learning, telemedicine infrastructure

Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue this week announced that the USDA is investing $72 million in grants to help rural residents gain access to health care and educational opportunities.

These investments, the department says, will benefit more than 12 million rural residents across the country.

Perdue said Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for expanded broadband as many employees are working from home and need reliable internet service.

Improved Internet services will also impact health care through telemedicine.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is right now as our nation manages the coronavirus emergency,” Perdue said. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children and remote business operations all require access to broadband. I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on.”

Alabama has been awarded six projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.

“I look at investing in broadband as a critical priority, especially in today’s environment,” said USDA Rural Development State Director for Alabama Chris Beeker. “Having access to broadband is vital and no longer a luxury, but rather a fundamental need of rural Alabamians because it creates opportunities for the development of the economy, health care centers and educational institutions that wouldn’t otherwise be available.”

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The USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program helps health care and education institutions buy the equipment and software necessary to deploy distance-learning and telemedicine services to rural residents.

The Clay County School District will use a $304,801 distance learning grant to establish a distance learning network connecting the Clay County Hospital and Clay County Board of Education.

Clay County Schools will utilize this project to bolster STEM programs through the addition of distance learning Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment courses.

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Clay County Hospital will use this partnership to connect to teletherapy providers for mental health and drug counseling services, thereby increasing the culpability of school district, hospital and community.

This project will raise the educational outcomes for all students providing much necessary STEM course offerings in the project sites and stimulate growth in the project community by increasing practitioner involvement in all areas of STEM education and health services, including real-world connections to our current curricula and the opportunity to integrate tele-education in areas not currently served through our health services programs.

The Central North Alabama Health Services will use a $173,818 telemedicine grant to help deliver an interactive digital audio-visual communication platform across five health centers in northern Alabama.

Distance learning will be focused on a health and wellness curriculum including concentrations in nursing assistant and opiate substance treatment and counseling. Equipment will include interactive telehealth carts that feature video codec, display, audio system and camera installed on a rolling base that contains an external battery; some will contain peripheral examination equipment. A large conference monitor will also be placed at all sites for group conferencing.

The Dale County Board of Education will use a $716,114 distance learning grant to allow the Dale County Board of Education to launch a new Distance Learning project that will serve seven schools, a career and technical campus and an alternative school in rural Dale County.

Interactive video conferencing will be used to deliver STEM-focused, synchronous educational content to participating end users.

The Franklin Primary Health Center will use a $610,927 telemedicine grant to connect health center hubs located in Mobile, Alabama, with rural end-user medical and dental sites. The new connectivity will provide real-time audio and visual interactions with expert medical and behavioral specialists for the care of rural patients.

The services will include the treatment of substance abuse disorders. The project will deploy interactive video conferencing equipment required for medical consultations and provide training in the use of other project equipment.

This, along with telehealth carts with integrated codec, camera, microphone, monitors and peripheral patient examination devices, will assist specialists to provide real-time interactive telehealth visits.

The Macon County School District will use a $469,859 distance learning grant to assist the Macon County School District to purchase interactive video conferencing equipment. The equipment will provide distance learning services for high school and middle school students.

This project will enable the district to deliver new courses at Macon’s high schools and middle school by connecting and sharing teachers across schools. This will position the district to provide more electives, more core courses and more opportunities for advanced courses for middle school students.

The Madison County Board of Education will use a $775,058 distance learning grant to allow the Madison County School District to expand STEM education augmented curriculum and virtual field trip opportunities using distance learning technology. This expansion will help to enhance career and college readiness for every school within the district.

Twenty-eight sites will connect with each other to share curriculum and improve learning and engagement for their students. This project will help to provide equal access to educational opportunities throughout the schools served within Madison County.

To learn more about investment resources for rural areas, interested parties should contact their USDA Rural Development state office.

The USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements, business development, housing, community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care and high-speed internet access in rural areas.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

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The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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