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August 2008

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Transit agencies kick their environmental efforts up a notch as they strive to become green leaders

By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Three years ago, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) held its first Sustainability Workshop. The objective? To educate transit officials on sustainability initiatives and convince them that implementing such initiatives doesn’t have to be as daunting — or as expensive — as they might think.

Late last month, APTA held its fourth annual workshop in Chicago, and while there’s still a fair amount of educating going on, there’s far less convincing.

“We’re hearing now that agencies are being asked by the communities they operate in to be more sustainable,” says Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) General Manager Fred Hansen, who chairs APTA’s Sustainability Task Force. “There’s been a shift in the country just in the past three years to make sure that transit operations are as sustainable as they can be.”

The soaring cost of fuel, newly implemented greenhouse gas emission reduction mandates and an overall increased public awareness of (and interest in) environmental issues have contributed to that shift. The importance of addressing each isn’t lost on transit execs.

“We’re dealing with a limited quantity of resources and a sensitive environment, and we have a responsibility as public agencies to be a good steward of those resources and be responsible to the environment,” says Keith Millhouse, board vice chairman for southern California’s Metrolink.

Whether they’re building on green initiatives launched years ago or just starting to go green, agencies have gotten a whole lot more serious about improving sustainability. Efforts range from recycling and energy-reduction initiatives to green building and design practices to sustainability programs that examine facilities, operations, equipment, land use, and even internal office procedures. Agencies also are marketing their services as a green mode of transportation.

“One, you want to make communities more sustainable overall, so we want people to have more reliance on public transportation and give them clean mobility options,” says Art Guzzetti, APTA’s vice president for policy. “But in addition, agencies themselves are dedicated to doing things greener in their own right.”

Years in the making

Many have been dedicated to the environmental cause for years. During the past decade, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has implemented a recycling program at stations and administrative offices, started sending old creosote wood ties to a co-generation plant, and substituted chemicals to reduce volatile organic compound emissions from insecticide applications and graffiti removal.

Amtrak launched an environmental management program a decade ago, too. While it originally was formed in response to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violation, the program has evolved to focus more on sustainability issues.

In 2003, the railroad joined the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Amtrak agreed to reduce its emissions 6 percent by 2010. Through efforts such as reducing locomotive idling, increasing dynamic and regenerative braking, introducing electric locomotives on the Keystone Corridor, and adding 80 new, lighter-weight vehicle carriers for its Auto Train, the railroad already has more than met its emissions reduction goal.

Amtrak also has been tracking energy and water use in its facilities.

The railroad has replaced light bulbs in Penn Station with compact fluorescent bulbs, and fixed a water leak at a Chicago facility that Amtrak found was costing an additional $200,000 annually, says Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety Roy Deitchmann.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) also has had an environmental management system in place for several years. The program mandates that projects conform to international environmental sustainability standards. Witness MTA New York City Transit’s Corona Maintenance Facility, which opened in 2006.

It features a photovoltaic roof, natural lighting and ventilation, and a fuel cell unit and is the first rail-car shop in the country to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, says MTA Director, Policy and Media Relations Ernest Tollerson.

The Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD) has adopted green building measures. In 2000, the agency selected a site that previously housed an iron foundry for the Elati Light Rail Maintenance Facility. Residents living near the site were concerned about soil contamination and how it would be controlled when the site was excavated.

So, RTD conducted an environmental assessment of the site and developed a remediation approach through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s voluntary clean-up program, says David Genova, RTD’s assistant general manager of safety, security and facilities.

RTD excavated old foundry materials from the site, then capped it — the entire foundry site is now under either concrete or asphalt. The building itself, which opened in 2005, features sustainable components, such as natural daylighting and low-flow water fixtures.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit expects to take a green approach when building its University Link light-rail line.

Sound Transit plans to build the Capitol Hill station at the crest of a hill, so trains coming uphill into the station won’t have to use as much energy to brake and trains going downhill won’t have to use as much to accelerate.

And, Sound Transit plans to incorporate “green walls” that feature plant materials mounted to the sides of the Capitol Hill station wall to absorb CO2.

Also included in the plans: natural light and ventilation in stations wherever possible, transit-oriented developments at the sites that first will be used as construction staging areas, organic compounds and sealants, and incentives for construction contractors to incorporate emissions-reduction strategies into their work.

“There’s nothing revolutionary about what we’re doing; we’re just using common sense, which is what sustainability is — being smart about how you do business rather than doing things because that’s the way you’ve always done them,” says John Harrison, Sound Transit’s deputy executive director, Link light rail and University Link project director.

All-encompassing efforts

But in the relatively new green world, it can be difficult to identify initiatives that provide an environmental benefit, then make sure they fit in with your overall sustainability goals. That’s why at least two agencies have decided to take a more comprehensive approach to their sustainability programs.

In September 2007, MTA formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability that comprises 20 commissioners considered to be “sustainability leaders” in the MTA service area, and is chaired by green planner and developer Jonathan Rose.

“While MTA has been working on individual green projects since the 1990s, it didn’t have a comprehensive plan for dealing with the MTA’s ecological footprint,” says MTA’s Tollerson.

In April, the commission issued an interim report that included more than 20 sustainability recommendations, and MTA already has committed to following through on several of them.

The authority plans to derive 7 percent of its energy needs from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2015. To make it happen, MTA plans to partner with the New York Power Authority to develop six megawatts of solar power at MTA facilities, and power a substantial portion of the Roosevelt Island subway station with tidal energy generated in the East River.

MTA also has committed to developing green design criteria based on LEED standards, such as by installing vegetated green roof at MTA Metro-North Railroad’s Harmon Yard Support Shop and a white roof at MTA Long Island Rail Road’s Hillside maintenance facility.

And, the authority will map groundwater sources in tunnels to identify ways to use stormwater.

The commission expects to issue final recommendations in November.

BART formed its own sustainability committee in January that’s charged with finding ways the agency can reduce its carbon footprint.

“We need to do our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we also can’t jump on the green bandwagon because it’s chic — we have to be careful to do it for the right reasons,” says Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) board member Bob Franklin.

That’s why the committee is not only seeking new ways to improve sustainability, but also re-examining some ideas that have been proposed in the past.

“We had talked about purchasing power from a renewable source, but for BART, deriving just 2 percent of our electricity from a renewable source would cost $1.8 million,” says Franklin.

Instead, the agency decided to spend the same amount to reduce headways on weekends and evenings from 20 minutes to 15 minutes, which could attract more riders and, ultimately, take more cars off the road.

The sustainability committee held its first meeting last month. Among the topics discussed: introducing sustainability criteria in the agency’s procurement process and installing photovoltaic panels at several facilities. The committee also vowed to focus on ways BART can improve its regenerative braking, which could reduce the agency’s energy consumption by 20 percent and save up to $8 million annually.

Green power

The Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which oversees Metrolink commuter-rail service, also is turning to rolling stock to improve sustainability.

The agency is taking delivery of remanufactured locomotives from MotivePower Inc. that emit 70 percent less carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, 60 percent less particulate matter and 42 percent fewer nitrogen oxides than Tier I locomotives, says Metrolink Board Vice Chairman Keith Millhouse.

And, the greener locomotives are 10 feet longer than the power they’re replacing and can haul 10 passenger cars instead of six, which translates into 1,200 additional passengers. As the locomotives are delivered during the next year, Metrolink will take older locomotives out of service to be refurbished with greener technology. The new units cost $1.9 million each.

“It’s a small price to pay relative to taking the lead in being green,” says Millhouse.

Agencies don’t have to spend millions to make an environmental difference. Earlier this year, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) formed a Green Team that includes a representative from each department. The team has launched an inner-office green program that included a recycling effort and internal Web site that provides environmental facts, tips of the week and trivia questions, says SFRTA Human Resources Assistant and Green Team Chair Belinda Clark.

As transit agencies refine their green initiatives internally, they’re beginning to promote those efforts externally. In the past year, several transit agencies have launched marketing programs that both highlight what they’re doing to improve the environment and promote their services as being environmentally friendly.

Agencies such as Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Maryland Transit Administration and Metro Transit now have sections on their Web sites that feature information on how the agencies are working to “be green,” and list the environmental benefits of using public transit.

Amtrak’s home page features a “Travel Green” icon that takes users to an “Amtrak and the Environment” section, which features a carbon footprint calculator, carbon emissions comparisons between rail, air and automobile travels, and ways Amtrak is working to conserve energy.

Show of character

The section also introduces ARTE the Environmental Engineer, a character Amtrak created in June 2007 to boost its environmental marketing efforts. The mission of ARTE — which stands for Amtrak Recognizes the Environment — is “to encourage environmental awareness, turning passion for the rails into passion for the earth.”

Amtrak also launched a partnership last year with that enables passengers to purchase credits to offset the carbon emissions footprint generated by their travel. Passengers pay $3 to offset 2,500 miles worth of Amtrak travel; uses the funds to support carbon-reducing measures, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation.

“We’ve gotten really good feedback on the program and also are benefiting because our passengers are seeing us as more of an environmentally efficient way to travel,” says Amtrak’s Deitchmann. “We’re beginning to see in our marketing surveys that green travel matters.”

Meanwhile, marketing officers at SFRTA are promoting the green benefits of the Tri-Rail commuter-rail system. The agency is using a logo on all its messaging, such as advertising and direct mail, that emphasize passengers can save “green” on gas and also “be green.”

And on Valentine’s Day, SFRTA provided free rides so passengers could show their love for the environment.

The transit industry needs to continue to show its commitment to and play up its role in addressing climate change — and continue to walk the talk.

“We need to become green leaders,” says TriMet’s Hansen. “The public expects this from us.”


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