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— by Julie Sneider, assistant editor
By their very nature, public transit agencies and passenger railroads are eco-friendly entities. They provide tens of millions of people with rides to work or school every day, keeping millions of automobiles off public roads and highways. What's more, U.S. public transportation saves 37 million metric tons of carbon emissions and 4.2 billion of gasoline annually, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
As Projjal Dutta, director of sustainability issues for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), sums it up: "Our core mission of transporting people is the single greenest thing we do."
And increasingly, transit agencies are stepping up efforts to improve energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and recycle more waste. In some cases, they're developing "green procurement" policies to require contractors and suppliers to meet certain environmental goals.
"It's part of being a good corporate citizen for the communities we're in, but it's also smart business," says Art Guzzetti, APTA's vice president of policy.
One recent example is a project at Sound Transit in Seattle, where Washington Department of Commerce officials announced last month that the agency would receive a $400,000 energy-efficiency grant to replace fluorescent, incandescent and high-intensity discharge lighting with light-emitting-diode fixtures at three transit centers, and upgrade heating, cooling and plumbing at Union Station. Sound Transit officials estimate the project will help the agency save about $80,000 in annual energy costs and leverage an additional $175,000 in utility rebates.
The initiative is part of Sound Transit's ongoing sustainability plan, through which the agency sets new targets each year. In 2012, the agency aims to develop a revenue fleet energy-efficiency strategy; draw up a water reduction strategy; increase recycling and waste diversion; and implement a "green procurement" policy, according to the plan as posted on Sound Transit's website.
Sound Transit was among the first agencies to sign APTA's "Sustainability Commitment," a program the association launched in 2009 in which members pledge to engage in certain practices that preserve the environment. Agencies can achieve recognition levels — bronze, silver, gold or platinum — for their preservation efforts.
APTA used Earth Day 2012 (April 22) to publicize a list of some transit agencies' green projects. Among them:
To help transit agencies advance their sustainability goals, APTA in recent years has organized an annual Sustainability and Public Transportation Workshop, which this year was held Aug. 5-8 in Philadelphia and hosted by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). At the event, SEPTA — also one of the first transit agencies to sign the APTA Sustainability Commitment — became the fourth public transit agency to receive gold-level recognition for environmental footprint reduction.
SEPTA was honored for a number of green efforts, including a wayside energy storage project launched in July at its Letterly Substation in Kensington, Pa. Using a $900,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority (PEDA), SEPTA partnered with Viridity Energy, a Philadelphia-based smart grid business, to develop a storage system that captures, stores and reuses "regenerative energy" created by braking trains, according to SEPTA officials.
SEPTA trains on the Market-Frankfort Line are equipped with regenerative capabilities to supply power to the propulsion system for nearby trains as they accelerate. But, if there's no train nearby to accept the "re-gen," it ends up wasted as heat.
With SEPTA's latest wayside energy storage project, regenerative energy will be stored in a battery-storage system so that it can be used to help reduce the Letterly Substation's electricity bills by 10 percent, but also can be sold back into the energy market. The partnership with a private business and the potential for a new source of revenue makes the project unique, says Marion Coker, manager of strategic business planning and sustainability at SEPTA.
"The wayside energy storage project is a totally different business model for us," she says.
And the venture is just one example of SEPTA's energy-saving creativity, she adds. For example, by switching the cleaning of SEPTA's headquarters building from night to day, agency officials anticipate saving about $100,000 per year by using less electricity for lighting, according to Coker. Also, SEPTA recently set up a comprehensive recycling program at stations along its Broad Street, Market-Frankford and Trolley Lines, and the majority of back-shop operations, which officials estimate will save thousands of dollars in annual waste-disposal costs.
"Recycling doesn't sound glitzy, but when a big agency like us recycles its waste, it has a real impact on the community," says Coker.
Like SEPTA, MTA has a multi-level approach to environmental sustainability. MTA — which oversees New York City Transit (subways and buses), Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, Staten Island Railway, and Bridges and Tunnels — aims to manage and/or reduce its energy consumption and environmental footprint through building maintenance, waste disposal and recycling, water conservation, and expanding access to transit and building its ridership.
The latter is a mixed blessing of sorts. As the transit system expands and serves more people, its overall carbon footprint gets bigger. But, "as long as it is not through inefficiency, this is good news for the world because it signals a much larger reduction of carbon emissions regionally," says sustainability director Dutta.
Although the MTA's operations emit about 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, its transportation services help the region reduce its overall GHG emissions by 17 million metric tons annually, which MTA officials claim makes the authority "perhaps the single biggest source of GHG avoidance in the U.S.," according to MTA's website.
In 2009, MTA began measuring its own carbon emissions and reporting it to a nonprofit organization that operates a voluntary GHG registry known as The Climate Registry. MTA is a founding member of the North American registry, which sets "consistent and transparent standards to calculate, verify and publicly report" carbon emission levels, according to the registry's website.
About 80 percent of MTA's emissions come from providing motor energy — the electricity and diesel power required to power its trains and buses. The remaining 20 percent comes from back-house operations, such as lighting and heating of train stations and bus depots, says Dutta.
Besides efforts to increase ridership, MTA is pursuing projects to reduce GHG emissions, save water, increase energy efficiency and recycle waste in ways large and small. Initiatives range from installing solar panels on facilities such as the Stillwell Avenue Subway Terminal, Roosevelt Avenue-74th Street Station, and NYC Transit Gun Hill Bus Depot; to LED light installation; to revitalizing MTA agencies' fleets by purchasing new equipment and remanufacturing select buses, passenger cars, coaches and locomotives.
Other MTA ideas or projects already in the works include using smart-car technology to reduce rail-car weight; expanding regenerative braking on subway fleets; and investigating opportunities to develop wind power on some of its properties and rights of way.
Also following a greener path is Amtrak, which is making incremental progress in reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions, says Celia Ann Pfleckl, Amtrak's senior environmental engineer.
In 2003, the national intercity passenger railroad joined the Chicago Climate Exchange as a charter member of the GHG reduction program, and in 2010, Amtrak joined APTA's Sustainability Commitment. Last year, Amtrak completed its first comprehensive GHG inventory of all of its operations, as well as measured other levels such as energy usage, water usage and waste recycling — all of which Amtrak will use to further develop its sustainability goals.
The railroad has set a five-year goal of cutting fuel consumption by 1 percent annually so that by fiscal-year 2015, fuel levels for revenue trains are at or below 57.8 million gallons, according to Amtrak's 2011 "Environmental, Health and Safety Annual Report."
The railroad has several fuel-reducing initiatives under way. Among them: implementing anti-idling practices, upgrading fuel management systems, tracking the use of dynamic braking and training engineers in train handling techniques that help conserve fuel.
In addition, Amtrak has received state and federal grants to help upgrade its switch locomotive fleet to Gen-Set technology, which replaces larger diesel engines and with smaller diesel engines and generators that meet higher federal environmental emissions standards, says Pfleckl.
And, in late 2011, Amtrak wrapped up the trial of a renewable biodiesel fuel blend (20 percent pure biofuel and 80 percent diesel) to power its daily Heartland Flyer train.
During the trial, Amtrak officials learned that using the biofuel resulted in no more wear and tear on the locomotive than traditional diesel, nor did it reduce the locomotive's performance or reliability, Pfleckl says. The research was funded with a Federal Railroad Administration grant and conducted in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
This year, Amtrak is developing a formal sustainability program for the entire organization and recently provided senior management with a sustainability policy for approval, Pfleckl says. The program will cover the environmental as well as economic and social elements needed to be a "sustainable" railroad, she says.
That seems fitting for any organization aiming to expand service while also tightening the belt. And going forward, passenger railroads and transit agencies increasingly will form partnerships with other public organizations, utilities, government agencies and the private sector — such as SEPTA's arrangement with Viridity Energy on the wayside energy storage project — in order to achieve sustainability, says APTA's Guzzetti.
"Sustainability is the way everyone is going to go — that's the way we see it," he says. "We embrace it."