How sustainability can save transit agencies money, build community support

Posted on September 13, 2013 by Dave Walsh - Also by this author

Everyone in the transit world knows resources are always stretched. But there are ways agencies can use sustainability to create and maintain financial, social and political capital.

Efficiency plays well with the public and can save big money in the long haul. Oftentimes, the environmental choices faced by transit agencies are governed by local laws, which vary greatly across the country.
Let’s focus the sustainability lens on some of the biggest operational costs in public works projects: fuel, power and water.

I’m working with a major Western city that is building out a large transit project. We decided to use a new generation of compact ceramic metal halide lamps in thousands of lamps throughout the parking lots and stations. The energy savings over time will more than justify the initial price of the lamps. That’s sustainable and sensible thinking that will pay financial and environmental dividends for decades.

Other energy-saving practices include escalators with motion sensors, regenerative elevators and sub-metering at maintenance facilities.

On the fuel side, hybrid buses and compressed natural gas (CNG) have proven track records to reduce costs and carbon pollution. The CNG bus fleet of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority reduced more than 92% of air toxic pollutants compared to the diesel buses it once operated. And, depending on the relative costs of natural gas and oil, CNG costs about one-half to one-quarter of the equivalent of diesel.

In New Jersey, the state mandates that equipment used in public works projects adhere to the highest environmental standards to reduce air quality impacts to communities. Taxpayer dollars are used to help subsidize the equipment, which will eventually replace older fleets throughout the state’s construction industry leaving a legacy of cleaner air for the region.

Water is increasingly considered a scarce resource, and here, too, transit agencies are often presented choices where sustainability can provide good guide posts. Planting native or adapted vegetation around stations and park-and-ride lots requires less potable water for irrigation. Re-circulating water in bus washes saves thousands of gallons (and dollars).

The storm water side of the equation is even more active, and is often directed by local regulations and priorities. In Seattle, for example, the public utility determines storm drainage rates by surface area and types of surface, with special allowances for pervious surfaces. The City of Philadelphia took particularly strong action, committing to refurbishing 9,500 acres of paved lands as part of a $2 billion plan to comply with federal orders to fix combined drainage and sewage systems that can discharge raw sewage and contaminant-laced runoff into the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which provides public transit for five Pennsylvania counties including Philadelphia, set a target of 10% improvement in SEPTA's water use and pollutant discharge performance by 2015. The agency plans to achieve this target by reducing its impervious surfaces on its properties and other strategies.

Just as storm water sustainability is often governed by local laws, same, too, with disposing of construction debris. In the Seattle area, tipping fees are far higher at landfills than recycling centers, a big incentive for local transit agencies to aggressively separate construction debris to maximize recyclables and minimize landfill waste. In other regions such as metropolitan Denver, there’s no shortage of available land for disposal sites, so the inherent economic conditions make waste diversion more of a challenge.

Just as sustainable water, fuel and energy practices can build financial resources, sustainability can also replenish and augment social and political resources as well and help set the stage for an electorate that’s more supportive of transit.

Good storm water management can prevent accidental releases of contaminated water, which can result in fines and public outrage. Good dust and noise control can help reduce the annoyance factor. And, strategic lighting can save money and limit neighborhood light pollution.

Of course, sustainability often means doing something new, untried and experimental. For every reason to make a change, there are counter-arguments. Want to try using pervious pavement at a park-and-ride? Won’t it crack and disintegrate? Can it be used in the parking stalls only?  Doing limited pilot projects to vet new solutions positions agencies as both forward-thinkers but also as a responsible stewards undertaking due diligence.

Transit agencies have to maintain a tricky balance between embracing new solutions that can deliver increased efficiencies without increasing risk. Interestingly, I’ve found that innovation is often embraced by the both high-level leadership and younger, newer staff. It will be this new generation that will likely devise and implement sustainable practices that most transit agencies haven’t even dreamed of yet.  

About the Author:
David Walsh is a Project Manager with Sellen Sustainability. A LEED-accredited architect with experience with both design and construction, Walsh is a longtime sustainability advocate who helps clients meet their sustainability goals and develop sustainability plans.

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