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Seattle Mayor Stresses Transit's Role in Combating Climate Change: At APTA's Third Sustainability Workshop


August 6, 2007


Special to Passenger Transport

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels described how he came to realize the imminent threat of global climate change when he addressed the third APTA Sustainability and Public Transportation Workshop, July 30 in Seattle.

The mayor explained that, when he took over the post in 2001, he knew about climate protection, but didn't think about it much. After all, he believed, a few degrees warmer in the Emerald City wouldn't be so bad.

But a warm, dry winter in 2004-2005 changed Nickels' mind, he said. Seattle relies heavily on its snow melt, but that winter produced just 1 percent of its normal output. "It became clear that global warming . . . was here and now," he told workshop participants.

The workshop explored ways that public transportation can continue to be a driving force in making a cleaner, healthier environment. Nickels, the only remaining original board member of Sound Transit in Seattle, is a strong proponent of both the environment and public transportation. He is also the co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Task Force, which now has 620 cities signed on to its goals of maintaining the natural health of their communities by working with state and federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As transportation is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, Nickels called on public transportation agencies to be at the forefront of combating the issue, with each agency doing its part to make a difference.

"There are different situations politically in each city," the mayor said. "You've got to find local drivers that put it in your skull that we have to make changes . . . . It isn't about shoving more vehicles through corridors. It's how we can get people from place to place, whether that means more bike trails, improving sidewalks, or investing in transportation corridors."

Nickels' vision for Seattle was in line with the challenges presented earlier in the day by Fred Hansen, co-chair of APTA's Sustainability Working Group and general manager of Portland's Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, which included:

* fully quantifying the public footprint of each agency;

* finding ways to integrate land use within transportation systems;

* increasing ridership and making public transportation a part of the community;

* developing specific goals on building and operations; and

* determining what actions public transportation can commit to over the coming year to play a part in sustainability.

Hansen, like many of the day's speakers, urged the representatives of transit agencies to think about sustainability within the framework of their own communities. If an agency develops a more environmentally friendly way of operating, but does so at the expense of its community, it won't have as positive an impact as it would if the citizens' lives were made better, he explained.

Because there is an initial cost of making operations more sustainable, he stressed, the vision must clearly show how the community will benefit from the change, or it could face opposition.

"It's about lifestyles and integrating things that make sense," said Ernest Tollerson, director of policy and media relations for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "We have to get to a point where the value placed on sustainability is the same as values placed on reliability or safety. It's not there yet."

One big key in integrating things into the community, according to many of the speakers, is simply working together with other transit agencies or other businesses to find out what works for them. Along those lines, representatives from various transit agencies shared their experiences with becoming more environmentally conscious and more sustainable.

For example, Joni Earl, chief executive officer of Sound Transit, spoke about how her agency is using hybrid buses, investing in biodiesel, pushing forward with an expansive light rail system, and using recycled materials in its construction projects.

Kevin Desmond, general manager of King County Metro Transit in Seattle, said his agency was the first transit organization to join the Chicago Climate Exchange, which provides financial incentives for reaching environmental goals. King County Metro operates a "Green Fleet" that includes electric trolleys and 235 hybrid diesel/ electric buses.

John Inglish, general manager and CEO of the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City and APTA vice chair-research and technology, said UTA has taken a "much more aggressive approach to our vanpool operation," and the program now regularly has a 100-person waiting list. He said it usually isn't too hard to convince community leaders to help with environmental issues: "All you need to do is show them what someone else is doing. There's a jealousy factor."

Stan Szabelak, civil engineering manager for Denver's Regional Transportation District, said establishing a sustainable business takes many steps, but that collaboration and documentation are important to the process. "You have to track and measure your goals," he said. "If you don't, they are just symbolic."

Speakers noted that pursuing certification when available is one way of tracking those goals, such as seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building certification. This certification uses a common standard of measurement for "green" buildings.

While pursuing LEED certification may cost more up front, the long-term savings justify the expense, according to Ken Anderson of RNL Design in Phoenix, who worked on the LEED-certified East Valley Bus Operations and Maintenance Facility in Tempe, Ariz.

Anderson pointed to the unique sustainability issues raised by the Arizona heat, and explained that dealing with the climate requires an emphasis on building orientation, such as placing doors at the north and south sides of the building to take advantage of natural shade. His plans for the facility also included using decomposed granite rather than black asphalt, and recycled interior materials inside, such as carpet and bamboo. East Valley also recycles 72 percent of the water used in its bus wash.

He also suggested that using regionally manufactured materials is an easy way to cut the cost of making buildings sustainable, as much of the cost comes from transporting the materials.

Timothy Lindholm, director of capital projects and facilities-operations for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said he has seen positive economic results for every sustainability project with which he has been involved, including the installation of solar panels on many Los Angeles buildings. Moving toward sustainability and environmentally conscious operations is not just an option, he said, it's a must.

"Everyone's doing it," Lindholm said. "It doesn't make sense not to."


Allende, Mike

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