How to pick the right sustainability ratings certification for your transit agency

Posted on August 31, 2016 by Rachel Bannon-Godfrey - Also by this author

L.A. Metro’s Expo Division 14 Light Rail Operations & Maintenance Facility in Santa Monica, Calif., which is pursuing LEED-NC Gold rating. Photo: Chang Kim Photography
L.A. Metro’s Expo Division 14 Light Rail Operations & Maintenance Facility in Santa Monica, Calif., which is pursuing LEED-NC Gold rating. Photo: Chang Kim Photography
Rating systems have become the currency of sustainability. The right sustainability ratings system provides an important third-party verification of your agency’s commitment to creating facilities that reduce carbon emissions, save water, create healthier work environments for your employees and have a positive impact on the communities they serve.

In this final installment of our series, we compare some of the more commonly used rating systems viewed through the lens of the question: Why is a certification important to your agency?

Your Goal: Recognition of your energy efficiency strategies.
EPA’s ENERGY STAR is a free, voluntary labeling/reporting system for energy performance. “Designed to Earn ENERGY STAR” certification requires a licensed architect or engineer to sign off on the results of an energy model of a building during design. For existing buildings, ENERGY STAR’s energy management tool requires you to set up an account on the EPA Portfolio Manager site and enter data from monthly utility bills, helping set your agency up for long-term quality control over energy use.  


Your Goal: Demonstrate an environmental commitment that goes beyond energy efficiency.
The most well-known certification system, U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system covers location, transportation and site strategies, water, energy, materials and indoor environmental quality. Projects must meet all the pre-requisites in each category to be eligible, but can then select additional credits in any category to increase certification level. A LEED plaque says that your facility was designed and constructed utilizing a spectrum of sustainability strategies. LEED has become the most common system on many federal, state and local government projects for its broad applicability.

Your Goal: Achieve recognition for an environmental commitment that goes beyond energy efficiency, but that acknowledges that your facility faces a number of constraints.
Green Globes is the most flexible of rating systems; awarding partial credits and allowing credit requirements that cannot be met due site or facility constraints to be marked as “non-applicable” instead of lowering your potential maximum score. This might be a good option for transit agencies facilities with functional or security requirements that conflict with typical rating system topics. In contrast to the LEED process, Green Globes offers support and feedback early on in the documentation process.

South Bend, Indiana’s Transpo Emil “Lucky” Reznik Operations Facility is LEED-NC Platinum rated. Photo: Ken Paul
South Bend, Indiana’s Transpo Emil “Lucky” Reznik Operations Facility is LEED-NC Platinum rated. Photo: Ken Paul
Your Goal: Demonstrate commitment to employee health and well-being as a driving factor in your sustainability strategy.
The WELL Building Standard focuses on the connection between the spaces in which we live and work, and their impact on human health. A game changer in the rating systems world, WELL combines best practices in building design with medical research, human behavior and workplace policies. WELL criteria range from requirements for air filtration and daylight in workspaces to access to healthy food options and support for active lifestyles.

Your Goal: If there is a bar, you want to raise it. You are a sustainability champion and you want the certification to prove it.
The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is the most stringent sustainability rating system. It both demands and recognizes sustainability leadership that goes far beyond your facility’s footprint. Scalable up to the level of an entire community, LBC is the Gold Standard of certifications. It offers three certification options: compliance with all categories, called Petals (Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity, Beauty); compliance with all requirements of just one Petal; or achieving Net Zero Building Certification.

Your Goal: Recognition of sustainability efforts on infrastructure projects
Envision is essentially a LEED-like rating system for infrastructure projects. Of all the rating systems, Envision is the least known, but has the most potential to transform the transportation and transit world. Covering five categories — Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, Climate & Risk — Envision is a thorough self-reported framework for demonstrating leadership on infrastructure improvement projects (e.g. rail lines, BRT corridors and associated stations) and their impact on communities. Envision is free to track, however paying for official third-party verification makes your project eligible for awards and public recognition.

Bottom Line: Focus on Value, Not Cost
Most certifications have the potential to add hard and/or soft costs for your project. However, if following a structured framework results in a better-performing facility, the long-term operational cost savings actually free up capital for service area improvements. The key is finding the ratings system that aligns most closely with your individual agency’s goals and values.

Merlin Maley is associate principal, western region transit director, and Rachel Bannon-Godfrey is director of sustainability at RNL (

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