Making sustainability a 'core principle' helps transit's bottom line

Posted on March 1, 2017 by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

SEPTA employees on top of the green roof at the agency's 33rd and Dauphin Bus Loop. Photo: SEPTA
SEPTA employees on top of the green roof at the agency's 33rd and Dauphin Bus Loop. Photo: SEPTA
In 2011, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Board passed the Authority’s first Sustainability Plan. Enacted in 2012, the plan was a core part of SEPTA’s Five-Year Strategic Business Plan, implementing a triple-bottom line approach — economic, social and environmental — to all of SEPTA’s sustainability efforts and to achieve “budget neutrality.”  The plan required projects to meet a rigorous financial standard of paying for themselves through grants, revenue, or cost savings.

“SEPTA’s Sustainability Program has helped the Authority save millions of dollars in operating costs,” said SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale T. Deon. “It has also been extremely valuable in positioning SEPTA to be competitive in grant programs for new initiatives.”

An example of the new energy efficient lighting installed at SEPTA's Berridge Shop. Photo: SEPTA
An example of the new energy efficient lighting installed at SEPTA's Berridge Shop. Photo: SEPTA

The success of the SEPTA’s first Sustainability Program Plan has resulted in the passage of a second-generation plan —“SEP-TAINABLE 2020”— and made sustainability a core principle for the Authority’s day-to-day operations. Even seemingly easy changes, like replacing fluorescent lights with LED lights have made a difference to the triple bottom line. The plan was recently approved by the SEPTA Board.

“SEP-TAINABLE 2020 adopts aggressive yet achievable targets for continuous improvement in environmental, social and economic performance,” said SEPTA GM Jeffrey Knueppel. “The plan was developed through extensive consultation with stakeholders and will play a key role as we continue to advance critical improvements throughout the SEPTA system.”

In April 2016, SEPTA was awarded a $2.5 million FTA Low or No Emission (LoNo) Grant to help fund the purchase of the electric buses.

Public transit is a green industry by nature, taking commuters out of cars and onto buses, trains and trolleys. SEPTA’s hybrid buses (more than half of its 1,400 bus fleet) and soon-to-arrive 25 electric buses reduce pollution and energy usage. On its subway and subway elevated lines, SEPTA is expanding its regenerative breaking program.  Currently, there are two Wayside Energy Storage Systems (WESS) at substations for the Authority’s Market-Frankford Line that capture and reuse regenerated energy from braking trains. Working with in a public-private partnership with Constellation New Energy Inc., SEPTA will install seven additional storage units — three at Market-Frankford Line and four at Broad Street Line (subway) substations.

One of the 25, 40-foot electric buses SEPTA is purchasing from Proterra, which will be deployed on Routes 29 and 79 in South Philadelphia late this year. Photo: SEPTA
One of the 25, 40-foot electric buses SEPTA is purchasing from Proterra, which will be deployed on Routes 29 and 79 in South Philadelphia late this year. Photo: SEPTA

In addition to “fueling” its transit operations, eco-friendly plans have “driven” SEPTA’s engineering, maintenance and construction projects. For example, the Authority recently closed the request for proposal (RFP) process for the installation and maintenance of solar panels at six of its facilities. With the solar panels, the combined 614,940 square feet of the SEPTA shops, rail yards and districts would generate 6.1 megawatts of power, which could be stored or sold back to the electric company.

To combat negative environmental impacts caused by stormwater run-off, SEPTA has adopted a Stormwater Management Plan, pledging to increase green acreage by 25 acres by 2020. Under the plan, the Authority will seek cost-effective opportunities to reduce fees associated with impervious surfaces (concrete and asphalt, for example) through a partnership with the Philadelphia Water Department and strategic implementation of green infrastructure.

Stormwater bioretention basin. Photo: SEPTA
Stormwater bioretention basin. Photo: SEPTA

Across the system, new tree plantings — almost 1,300 from 2008-15 — have helped retain stormwater while beautifying the surroundings. At new facilities, SEPTA has installed green roofs and green walls to manage stormwater drainage. Older buildings, such the Southern Bus Depot in South Philadelphia, cannot support the weight of green roofs. At that facility, the Authority will install bioretention basins and a large detention basin to capture more than eight acres of stormwater.  

These are just a sample of the goals set forth by SEPTA’s SEP-TAINABLE 2020.  The entire program report is available here.

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