Hartford Distributors, a beer distribution company, already has solar installed, but would like to convert its truck fleet to electric vehicles. Hartford Distributors

Ross Hollander has a lot of trucks. He owns 60 trailers, leases the tractors to pull them and owns another 20 vans. They deliver beer in six of Connecticut’s eight counties, a job his family has been doing since 1962 as Hartford Distributors.

They drive a lot of miles and they use a lot of fuel, mostly diesel. And given climate change, which according to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is even worse than had been thought, Hollander doesn’t want to be using fossil fuel any more.

“Early on, I felt as though it was important for companies like ours to invest in changing our carbon footprint,” he said. So he installed enough solar on the roof to power 80% of his 100,000 square feet of refrigerated space. But he said: “We want to go a step further.”

He wants to convert his fleet to electric. First, however, he needs charging infrastructure that can recharge each vehicle overnight.

“We want to be a beacon,” he said, but he could use a little help. “We believe that there should be some grant money for us to be able to go with it.”

It’s the kind of initiative and funding that could have been provided through the Transportation and Climate Initiative that failed in last year’s legislative session after Republicans inaccurately branded its funding source from an increase in gasoline prices as a tax, and the label stuck.

TCI is not back this session, but there is a comprehensive climate and transportation bill — SB4 — that would start several large clean transportation programs, including some that would help Hollander. It also sets up funding mechanisms that would piggyback on the nearly $5.4 billion in federal funding from the infrastructure legislation that is coming to Connecticut along with other competitive pools of infrastructure money that, in some cases, require state matching funds.

It’s getting an all-hands-on-deck effort with nearly four dozen co-sponsors including the Democratic leadership that was barely lukewarm on TCI. Republicans? Not yet.

“The whole concept of electric vehicles and lower emissions is something that crosses party lines and people generally support,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “Funding sources always become the bone of contention, and obviously, in the wake of what we’re seeing with gas prices, that just spurs that debate all over again.”

But Democrats on the transportation and environment committees, who are jointly working the bill and holding a hearing on it Friday, are not leaving Republicans with a message opening this time. The bill is called An Act Concerning the Connecticut Clean Air Act.

“Yeah, well, you have to wonder who’s going to oppose clean air in Connecticut, right?” said Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, who co-chairs transportation and serves on the environment as well as energy and technology committees. “I’ve been thinking of it as kind of kumbaya legislation, because it actually brings together a lot of groups that normally come to my office to complain about the other.”

Unlike TCI, which was authorizing legislation to develop clean transportation initiatives but had a dedicated funding source, this bill has very specific programs each with funding plans, a number of which call for bonding as a way to match federal dollars.

And this bill has a distinct focus on the needs of environmental justice communities, something opponents often claimed TCI wouldn’t have.

“I remember from the TCI debate, so many of my colleagues said, ‘We support these investments, we just don’t support the revenue source.’ So we’re taking them up on it,” Haskell said. “We’re finding new ways to fund similar investments, and we’re doing so in a way that makes sure no family, no community, gets left behind in this transition to a greener, cleaner transportation network.”

Among the bill’s provisions:

  • Expansion of rebates for electric vehicle purchases through CHEAPR, the existing EV incentive program, with larger rebates and pre-qualification for those who live in environmental justice communities, with inclusion of business and non-profit fleets and electric bikes.
  • A 2030 deadline to have 100% electric school buses in environmental justice communities and a 2035 deadline for the rest of the state. Establishes a matching grant fund for schools.
  • 100% of state-owned light vehicles must be electric by 2030.
  • State will stop purchasing or leasing diesel buses by 2024.
  • Requires level 2 EV charging in rental properties, state buildings and schools and requires wiring for them in all new construction.
  • EV charging infrastructure for rural areas.
  • Requirements that entities using state funds for infrastructure projects that increase carbon emissions also do carbon mitigation projects.
  • Helps towns upgrade traffic signals for better flow and less emissions.

“One of my concerns overall with the electric vehicles is infrastructure,” Candelora said. “Do we have enough charging stations? And I think the federal money is attempting to address that issue. And I think that’s something that Connecticut needs to get in front of, before we start incentivizing the purchase of these vehicles.”

He also agreed that making them more affordable to lower-income people was important. Many see electric bikes, or E-bikes, as an important tool for doing that, especially in cities.

Thomas Lefebvre, coordinator for Transport Hartford, a program of the Center for Latino Progress, said the E-bike inclusion was important, but a main goal should be to reduce driving, period. That means investing in mass transit.

“Mostly we want that EJ communities are part of the process,” he said.

The push for E-bikes in the legislation is substantially more basic than programs planned next door in Massachusetts. Just this week, that state announced $5 million in grants from state funds for 10 innovative clean transportation projects statewide. Most are E-bike initiatives including bike sharing, specifically for environmental justice areas, and an E-cargo delivery pilot program as well as a taxi electrification program.

A component of the Connecticut bill that could become contentious is the electrification of school bus fleets.

“This is one of the items we’re most excited about — that you have a clear timeline to retire these old school buses,” Lefebvre said.

But Candelora is worried that the bus technology is not good enough yet, at least for the few transit electric buses now in the state.

“I think everybody would agree that diesel emissions, people aren’t going to want to breathe that in,” he said. “What I’m seeing right now is we can’t get the buses online for the state of Connecticut. So even if the money is there, I’m reluctant to jump in on school buses.”

Connecticut may be getting a small number of electric school buses through previous rounds of federal dollars. The state got nothing from a $7 million tranche in the American Rescue plan. But it is receiving about $165,000 for eight buses in four different locations, though it’s a program that allows for the replacement of old diesel school buses with ones that can include diesel, gasoline and propane as well as electric. The new funding in the infrastructure law is $5 billion nationally over five years and may prioritize environmental justice areas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think you see in this bill a lot of partnership — with local business owners in exempting charging infrastructure from property taxes, with local school districts and helping them to afford electric buses, and frankly, with local governments and helping them to afford to modernize traffic signals as something they can’t really afford to deal with without some state assistance,” Haskell said.

But the bill is long, a potential challenge in this very short legislative session.

“I’m really hopeful that we can get this done,” said Sen Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, co-chair of the Environment Committee. “We need to be taking meaningful steps. Climate action should have been taken yesterday, but we’re doing all these onesie-twosie things, which I think are very important and all add up, but this will have real meaningful impact.”

In addition to the dire IPCC report, yet another air report released by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection shows the state continues to be in violation of even the less stringent air quality standards from 2008 and 2015. The transportation sector remains the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and the state is not on track to meet its 2030 and 2050 emissions targets.

While the measures in SB 4 are geared toward improving that trajectory as well as mitigating climate change, another bill is also in the mix. It would have the state adopt the more stringent California standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks as it does for cars and other light vehicles. A similar measure failed last year.

Using the California standard became more serviceable this week when the EPA restored that state’s ability to set its own emissions standards, as has been allowed since the 1970s under the federal Clean Air Act. The Trump administration had stripped that right, even though to do so was legally questionable.

Candelora said he’s not sure yet about supporting that.

“My global concern right now with the trucking industry is the cost of goods and services, getting the products into Connecticut,” he said. “And with the truck tax being implemented next year — how do the standards play with that?”

But for Haskell and Cohen, climate change mitigation is the concern.

“We’re providing all these dollars for new businesses to come into the state,” Cohen said. “The businesses that are here and existing, how can we reward green economy decisions, right? And so I think that’s going to be more and more important.”

And Haskell said: “We have an opportunity to make sure that, in this historic moment where Connecticut is slated to receive $5.4 billion in infrastructure investments, that those investments don’t worsen our climate crisis.”

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Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.