Seeking validation for transit's green efforts

Posted on February 5, 2014 by Dave Walsh - Also by this author

Transit agencies increasingly want third-party validation of their sustainability efforts. They understand that to make improvements, they need to measure what they’re doing. And, that takes special skills and a trained eye.

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But, finding just the right fit between an agency and an outside advisor/auditor can be challenge. When it comes to being green, major civil engineering projects have unique qualities that make reviews using building-centric rating systems difficult.

In some states, transit agencies don’t have a choice when it comes to accreditation. In California, all transit construction must follow CalGreen, which is part of the state building code. In many ways, it’s similar to LEED but reviewed by local code officials instead of the United States Green Building Council.

Some California agencies go even further. At Sellen Sustainability, we’re helping a large Southern California transit agency evaluate whether its bus and rail maintenance bases can achieve LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) certification.

While LEED works for some agencies, it has limitations. For example, LEED sets out “minimum program requirements,” such as the building, must be occupied. If an agency is building an unmanned rail station, that can be a problem. Transit facilities are often large and multi-use, and don’t always fit with LEED guidelines for a project campus.

Another rating system has emerged for large projects. Envision, a joint collaboration between the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University and the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, provides guidance and a rating system to improve sustainability of all types and sizes of infrastructure projects.

So far, there’s a lot of interest in Envision, but it’s new and no project has been fully certified.

Construction of the Denver International Airport rail station. Photo courtesy Denver RTD.
Construction of the Denver International Airport rail station. Photo courtesy Denver RTD.
A third path for transit agencies is the tailor-made approach. Sellen Sustainability serves as a consultant to Eagle P3, a $2.1 billion public-private commuter rail project for the Denver Regional Transportation District and designed, built and operated by Denver Transit Partners.

Although we are not an independent third party, we work very closely with the Eagle P3’s design, construction and operations teams to set goals, devise policy, assist with data collection and provide timely feedback on sustainability performance. The consulting provides a custom dataset that informs decisions on efficient operations and long-term investments.

For example, we measure fuel usage — gas, diesel, natural gas and electricity. When we noticed big diesel bills, we helped institute a new “no idling” policy for drivers. Now, stickers in every truck window remind people behind the wheel to turn off the engine when not needed. We measure water usage, and the team found ways that non-potable water could be transported off-site to a nearby manufacturer who needed dust suppression.

And, we track the project’s employment of disadvantaged and small business enterprises (MBE and DBE) to verify that public dollars are re-invested back into the community and to build the skills, experience and capacity for these firms.

Every year, we help produce a Sustainability Report that details efforts in project management, design, procurement, construction, and operations and maintenance. The 2012 report noted that we were able to procure 61% of the project materials from the region, investing in nearby businesses while greatly reducing the embodied energy and emissions impact from shipping materials to the jobsite — an impressive metric for any construction project.

Large transit projects are public projects, and within every agency, there is a relentless focus on making sure taxpayers get the most bang for the buck. As such, there are always voices who suggest that sustainability and community-reinvestment doesn’t build another foot of rail or shave years from decades-long projects.

But, sustainability efforts pay for themselves both in real dollars and political capital. In the end, the net benefit to the community creates a solid foundation for future work.

It’s all about testing, measuring, and getting results.

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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