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OPINION

By investing in electric Silver Line buses, MBTA would be investing in healthier neighborhoods

Who decides which Chelsea residents have cleaner air and which don’t? What about the residents of East Boston?

A 111 bus heads over the Tobin Bridge from Chelsea to Boston.
A 111 bus heads over the Tobin Bridge from Chelsea to Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Do only some communities deserve clean air? If you ask the MBTA, Chelsea and East Boston don’t make the cut.

In a recent presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, the MBTA proposed replacing aging Silver Lines buses, not with electric buses, but with diesel hybrids.

Policies and plans to modernize our transit system must include goals of resiliency, sustainability, and equity. Putting new money toward old technology is antithetical to those goals. A decision made more puzzling given the MBTA’s recent investment in a new garage for electric buses.

The T recently tested electric buses on the Silver Line route and claimed failure. The buses they tested, however, did not use the existing catenary, a system of overhead electric lines also found on sections of the Green Line and Blue Line, in the tunnel to extend the range of the test buses. A test of the route using the catenary would have produced better results.

This is not unproven technology. The city of Dayton, Ohio, along with many cities in Europe, has been using emission-free, battery-powered in-motion charging buses successfully for several years. San Francisco and Seattle are using less advanced versions of the same technology.

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Chelsea and East Boston are environmental justice communities that shoulder a disproportionate share of the region’s ultrafine particulate matter, ozone pollution, and nitrogen dioxide. As a result, they have some of the highest levels of air pollution in the region, creating higher rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and cardiovascular diseases.

These communities have also been among the hardest hit in the state by COVID-19. Chelsea’s per capita infection rates make it one of the most impacted cities in the nation. East Boston is identified as the hardest hit Boston community. We are just seeing the beginning of the long-term health and economic impacts of COVID-19 in these communities. As we continue toward recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, rebuilding must start in our environmental justice communities.

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“Geofencing,” the process by which diesel engines could be automatically turned off and on depending on the location of the bus, has been promised for portions of Chelsea. No such assurance was given to keep toxic fumes out of East Boston, or the increasingly residential Seaport.

Who decides which Chelsea residents have cleaner air and which don’t? What about the residents of East Boston? And where do the fumes in the Ted Williams Tunnel go? These fumes, toxic gases, and cancerous particulates, go into the lungs of residents in neighborhoods already ravaged by a viral respiratory infections.

East Boston and Chelsea are facing the compounding impacts of COVID-19 as well as decades of toxic industrial and transportation pollution. The Fiscal and Management Control Board must prioritize environmental justice communities by using existing infrastructure and purchasing clean in-motion charging buses to bring the transportation network into the 21st century and help our communities breathe easier.

Senator Joe Boncore is chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation and represents the First Suffolk and Middlesex district, which includes East Boston. María Belén Power is associate executive director of GreenRoots and was recently appointed to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.