Tonya Riggles, left, and Maya Riggles, right, stand in front of their brand-new Tesla at the Supercharger station, located behind the Wawa gas station on Gate Parkway near the St. Johns Town Center, on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (Emily Felts/Fresh Take Florida)

Florida Moves Ahead With More Electric-Vehicle Plans: Will Investment Pass By Poor, Minority Communities?

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MIAMI – Florida is moving ahead with plans to dramatically expand its network of electric vehicle charging stations along major interstates and highways.

State spending is driving the expansion — even during the pandemic — thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars in criminal and civil penalties from automaker Volkswagen caught cheating on environmental tests.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced $8.5 million for new fast electric charging stations along Interstates 75, 4 and 95 earlier this month. The stations, to be built this summer, will span more than 1,200 miles and increase the number of publicly accessible fast chargers in Florida by more than 50%. 

The new spending comes on top of a law DeSantis signed last month laying the groundwork for charging stations at every service plaza on Florida’s toll turnpike, which should be completed by September.

“All this work will mean electric car owners will not have to worry about where they will be able to charge their car when using our major highways,” DeSantis said.

But will the next generation of clean cars and trucks drive past Florida’s poorest neighborhoods or minority communities? It’s unclear whether or when charging stations will be built in impoverished rural or urban areas.

The initiatives – intended to move drivers away from cars and trucks burning fossil fuels and improve air quality – give Republicans in Florida another credible claim on an important environmental initiative during an election year. Earlier this summer, DeSantis also signed a landmark law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature expected to improve water quality across the state.

The electric-vehicle law passed earlier this summer is part of a broader strategy, led by the Florida Office of Energy under Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, to design a roadmap for promoting use of electric vehicles and expanding charging stations statewide. Fried is expected to challenge DeSantis when he seeks re-election as governor.

State transportation officials have cited figures projecting there could be 4.5 million electric vehicles on Florida roads by 2030. An estimated 69,000 are currently registered here, according to data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. 

The new electric vehicle initiatives will benefit the environment and promote economic growth, said Matt Alford, executive director of Drive Electric Florida, a coalition promoting electric vehicle ownership. 

“It’s going to be a diverse, robust group of folks that, for different reasons, come to the same conclusion. That’s how you know this is an inevitable market,” Alford said. “This is going to happen and it’s a matter of at what pace and whether or not Florida has put in place some smart policies and smart regulations.”

Russell Nicholson stands by his Tesla at the Wawa gas station off of Gate Parkway in Jacksonville, Fla., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Nicholson bought the electric vehicle seven months ago. (Emily Felts/Fresh Take Florida)

Florida is spending some of the $167 million it received under a global multi-billion dollar criminal and civil settlement with Volkswagen, the automaker that acknowledged in 2015 cheating on government emissions tests for diesel engines in its cars.

DeSantis said some Volkswagen money will allow the state to expand charging infrastructure along Interstate 10 in northern Florida and in areas of South and central Florida. 

Building charging stations along highways and interstates may not help minority communities, said Terry Travis, co-founder of the nonprofit EVHybridNoire, a national multicultural network focused on transportation equity and public policy. 

Travis said investing equipment in neighborhoods instead especially for people who live in apartment complexes, condos, townhomes or duplexes and can’t charge a vehicle overnight like in a single-family house would be more beneficial.

“In the general, everyday utilization for communities of color, putting charging infrastructure along highway corridors is not going necessarily to be beneficial for Black and brown communities,” he said.

Even if there aren’t many charging stations, and if people in poor communities can’t afford electric vehicles, electric fleets of school buses or garbage trucks could help with air quality there, said Dr. Cheryl Holder, an internal medicine doctor who focuses on underserved communities and is president of the Florida State Medical Association.

Holder suggested hiring people in disadvantaged communities to provide jobs within the electric vehicle market while encouraging more electric vehicle adoption. Without such purposeful efforts, she said, it could turn into expensive Teslas zipping along Interstate 95 and continuing to ignore the struggles of people who live beside it. 

In Overtown, north of downtown Miami, constant traffic flows on nearby I-95, which was built directly over the predominantly Black neighborhood in the 1960s and forced many to move to Liberty City or elsewhere. Holder said many of her Overtown and Liberty City patients rent housing, struggle to pay for electricity bills ー and struggle to breathe from poor air quality. 

“My concern is, the history will continue,” she said. “If equity requires you to spend more money in certain areas, and when the pie is not expanded, that means somebody is going to have to give up some of it.”

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at mstarling@freshtakeflorida.com 

About Marlowe Starling

Marlowe is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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