Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the state of Indiana is set to receive $100 million to build out a network of electric vehicle charging stations by 2025. But local officials and leaders of the NAACP in the state are calling on the Biden administration to reject the state’s plan, arguing that communities of color have been left out of the planning process, leading to a proposal that could entrench the racist transportation policies that both President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have vowed to address with these new federal funds.
"The state of Indiana has created a plan that is not equitable for communities of color, Black and brown,” said Henry Davis Jr., a city council member in South Bend, where Buttigieg was mayor. “We want to be included in that plan. It is kind of hard to be included on a plan when you are not even at the table.”
Davis is part of an alliance that includes the Indiana NAACP, Black Lives Matter South Bend and local Black business leaders. Among its top concerns is the fact that the Indiana Department of Transportation held just three in-person public meetings to accept input on the plan, all of which were located in predominantly white neighborhoods. There were no meetings in historically Black cities such as Gary, for instance. Instead, the meeting for the northern section of the state was held in the much smaller city of Plymouth, where the population is 90% white. These meetings were also scheduled from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., making it difficult — if not impossible — for many working people to attend.
But arguably the bigger issue, alliance members say, is the plan itself, which makes fleeting mention of the state’s commitment to equitable distribution of charging stations but is light on details about how exactly the state plans to go about achieving those goals. “There are these systems that need to be changed, that need to include us in this green economic transition,” said Denise Abdul-Rahman, state chair of environmental and climate justice for the Indiana NAACP.
Expanding access to electric vehicle infrastructure in communities of color has been top of mind for policymakers. The Biden administration has committed to ensuring that 40% of all federal climate and energy investments benefit disadvantaged communities. Buttigieg has spoken at length about the need to correct the racist history of transportation in America. And Indiana’s own state law also requires electric vehicle charging infrastructure “to be located in an equitable manner” and to be convenient for people living in areas that are “economically [distressed] or racially or ethnically diverse.”
But the standoff in Indiana over charging stations reflects a pervasive concern in communities of color that the EV transition will leave them out. Racial disparities in access to charging stations are already apparent in cities across the country. The new federal funding presents an opportunity to close the gap and encourage greater adoption of electric vehicles in communities of color. That’s crucial, given that they’re disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. “There has to be an intentional effort to support the discussion about Black and brown communities receiving the investment,” Davis Jr. said. “We just can't keep giving lip service.”
Scott Manning, Indiana’s deputy chief of staff for the Department of Transportation, acknowledged that while the in-person meetings may have been difficult for many to attend, the state did provide other avenues for public comments, including two virtual meetings and an online survey. According to the draft report, about 2,300 people responded, with comments coming from all but one county in the state.
The department also noted in its EV plan that it consulted with groups including the NAACP and the South Bend chapter of Black Lives Matter, but those meetings were not open to the public.
The plan has already been submitted for federal approval, but Manning emphasized that it is a “living document,” and that there will be further community outreach. “We do have the opportunity to be flexible with where the charging stations are ultimately located, provided that we are locating in sites that meet [the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program] requirements,” he said.
But local advocates say the NEVI requirements may wind up hurting rather than helping their cause. Under the $5 billion program, through which Indiana will get its $100 million, states are required to prioritize placement of charging stations along highways before local roads.
That, Abdul-Rahman worries, could mean chargers winding up in areas that aren’t convenient to the local community and don’t ultimately benefit local businesses. Her organization is looking for assurances that charging stations will not only be located in communities of color, but that Black-owned businesses will be included in procurement contracts and job programs related to the new technology.
The federal government now has until Sept. 30 to consider the state’s plan. According to Manning, there are no signs yet the plan will be rejected. But Abdul-Rahman, Davis and others are still hoping it will be, forcing decision-makers in Indiana to come back to the bargaining table — with more seats around it this time.