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Sustainability can save WMATA money, if it's a priority

Organizations of all types are talking about being "greener," partly because it's the right thing to do, but also because it can save money. Amid regular budget shortfalls, WMATA can benefit from every cost savings, and is considering a number of sustainability projects.

Pilot test of new platform lights. Image from WMATA.

Tomorrow, the WMATA Board will hear about the agency's sustainability initiatives. Sustainability could make a big difference in the budget.

According to a November memo to the Board, more efficient lighting in parking garages could save $1.5 million per year. Doing the same for stations and tunnels could save $5-8 million per year. New lights also generate more light and need less maintenance than the old.

Lighting isn't the only way that being green could help get rid of the red ink and improve operations at the same time.

Many escalators around the world stop when they're not being used, and have more efficient motors than Metro's aging escalators. Solar panels or solar laminates could cover the roofs of Metro railyards, maintenance facilities, and garages.

Other transit agencies have trained operators to accelerate and brake more fuel-efficiently. Many have installed tire pressure gauges that actively and constantly communicate tire air pressure data to the maintenance facilities. That lets them keep buses at optimum tire pressure and fuel efficiency, which saves significant fuel. Fuel is a very large cost item in Metro's budget, especially with fuel prices rising.

WMATA already has set a standard to make new facilities LEED Silver, like the Shepherd's Parkway bus garage under construction. Its new buses are cleaner and more efficient than the old, and the 7000 series railcars use LED lights, regenerative braking to get energy back like hybrid cars do, better HVAC systems and a design that reduces the need for some polluting processes to clean them.

Sustainability faces obstacles

It's often difficult for transit agencies to energetically adopt sustainability programs. Some agency staff think of transit as intrinsically pro-sustainable, compared to other modes of travel, so they might not feel that sustainability is the higest priority. There can be resistance from the rank and file to newfangled, ivory tower ideas that don't recognize the rough reality of engineering and operations.

Transit agencies also, perhaps understandably, end up prioritizing the day-to-day crisis management over strategic programs. At the moment, WMATA's the overwhelming emphasis is on system safety and renewal capital projects. That means that "soft," "green" projects can find it hard to compete for the capital funds available, even when there's a powerful economic business case behind them.

Another obstacle is the relationship between labor and management. Many sustainability programs might involve changes to people's job responsibilities, which means that management has to negotiate for a change rather than simply establishing and implementing the program.

For example, if WMATA monitored the fuel efficiency performance of each bus driver to help them save fuel, would the union oppose this as another form of management breathing down workers' necks? Would WMATA be able to reward employees that saved the most fuel and money?

Even for non-union workers, transit agencies lack many of the tools private sector companies have to reward individual initiative. A private sector employee responsible for annual cost savings might get a bonus as a result, in a transit agency that same employee might simply get an employee appreciation mention in a weekly newsletter. Weighed against the possibility that any given sustainability initiative might "rock the boat" for bosses or colleagues, a public pat on the back doesn't offer enough to outweigh the possible headaches.

Sustainability initiatives that come from one department might create savings in another department. But the department that initiated the program might not benefit from the savings, reducing the incentive. Also, divisions within public or private sector organizations often covet the size of their respective budgets and the control that spending authority gives.

A department which saves money might view this as reducing "their budget" instead of looking at the benefit to the agency's bottom line. The affected department could well resent the sustainability initiative and the employees elsewhere in the organization who pushed the idea through.

Making sustainability happen takes leadership from the top

Despite all these barriers, it's more important than ever that WMATA take a strong leadership role in sustainability, backed up by strong management policy and action. In a budget season when the agency is asking for substantial fare and subsidy increases, the public needs to hear that WMATA is taking every possible action to provide transit services more cost-effectively (not to mention more safely and reliably).

WMATA is also entering negotiations with its labor unions for the next round of labor contracts. It's critical that the issues of efficiency and productivity be on the table in a central, pivotal way. It's not unreasonable for labor to ask for wage increases; it's completely unreasonable to ask for such increases without also committing to improving productivity and efficiency in quantifiable ways.

WMATA management could start most sustainability initiatives without any Board action. Richard Sarles and his management team could unilaterally adopt many measures and communicate the values described here. But, perhaps for many of the reasons listed above, Metro's management has not yet made sustainability the visible issue it could and should be. That means they need support, and pressure, from the region and the board.

To date, only 2 WMATA Board members have expressed much interest in sustainability: Tom Downs and Mary Hynes. They should both be commended for trying to make this issue a priority for the agency, and hopefully they will continue to do so. Their colleagues should join them in pressing for more sustainability, productivity, and efficiency.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I disagree with the blanket assumption that "Greener... it's just the right thing to do."

It's just overly broad and can lead to its own set of problems...

by @SamuelMoore on Apr 11, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

So since Metro is replacing the Dupont south escalators will they be installing pressure pads to activate the escalators so they will only run when needed?

by rdhd on Apr 11, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

What about the sustainability initiative of replacing shorter escalators with stairs?

May or may not have an environmental savings, but in terms of limiting the amount of continuing maintenance and replacements, it would help Metro's long-term bottom line.

by Michael Perkins on Apr 11, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport

I'd consider many of the items mentioned in this article not to be "sustainability initiatives" but simply "effective management." In any large institution (government, non-profit or corporate), even slam dunk cases can suffer for lack of management priority. Given the current attention buzz around sustainability, putting them under that headline may be a very effective way for middle managers to gather more leadership attention. But the items mentioned in this article appear to be some of the lowest-hanging fruit. Many of them should not be considered some new direction for the agency, but overdue business.

by Andrew on Apr 11, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

The cost of fuel is something that, it seems to me, is not adequately considered with transportation initiatives. Very often, decisions are driven by cost considerations. For example, the decision to go with BRT over light-rail in the Corridor Cities project. Though I haven't poured over the documents, I would bet that there is no more than lip service paid to the rising cost of fuel. Even if it's done just for comparing public costs for one project to another, I guarantee it's not done in a more global way. For example, if a state or county decides to build a new highway (or expand an existing one), instead of expanding rail service, they will overlook the impact on the cost of fuel because of the additional driver miles by private citizens and commercial enterprises.

When Gov. Christie cancels a desperately-need rail project because he wants to use the funds for state transportation budget to build more roads (instead of raising fuel taxes) he might be helping his political future, but he's doing more damage to state finances than he imagines. The state is spending billions to expand the Jersey Turnpike. How about using some money to make Amtrak more appealing, or providing better commuter rail links from central Jersey? Getting more people off the road will have savings that aren't captured unless you project the impact of gas prices coming down (or not rising as high). If you just compare the immediate, direct costs, you might think the State picked the more cost-efficient alternative, but what happens to state and county budgets when fuel costs bust those budgets?

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 11, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

"A private sector employee responsible for annual cost savings might get a bonus as a result, in a transit agency that same employee might simply get an employee appreciation mention in a weekly newsletter"

even in the federal civil service there are provisions for merit based bonuses, and also time off awards. I would hope that in more flexible local govts and transit agencies, that would not be that hard.

by YesIndeedy on Apr 11, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

T12 lights are rampant throughout metro. This is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit for lights that are on 24/7 across the whole system, in trains, etc. I see these in airports all the time too, I have no idea what gives.

by Emily on Apr 11, 2012 3:11 pm • linkreport

"That means that "soft," "green" projects can find it hard to compete for the capital funds available, even when there's a powerful economic business case behind them."

But you just cited a number of cases where they're already doing that... New railcars are being designed more efficiently, old ones are gradually being refitted, and equipment is being replaced in stations as labor, supplies, and funding will allow.

Metro's access to capital (both human and monetary) is understandably not unlimited. I'd rather see an analysis pointing out how Metro could be doing better with the resources that it has, not a fantasy scenario where they retrofit all of their facilities and equipment immediately.

Similarly, as sustainable technology continues to make rather impressive leaps forward, an incremental approach presents obvious advantages.

All signs seem to indicate that Metro understand the financial incentives of energy-efficient upgrades, and are at the very least gradually moving things in the right direction.

The agency has also responded ad nauseum to requests to convert escalators to stairs or install pressure sensors. The conclusion has always been that the stations handle too much volume for stairs to adequately handle the crowds during rush hour, and that pressure-plates can create safety hazards, as Americans are unfamiliar with them. Station managers are already supposedly instructed to turn off superfluous escalators during off-peak hours.

Besides that, the overwhelming majority of the agency's energy consumption doesn't come from lightbulbs or escalators. It comes from moving 80,000-pound railcars around.

If we really want to see a positive environmental impact, we should focus on attracting more transit riders away from their cars, especially during off-peak hours when we have capacity to spare. After that, you'd likely see the biggest gains from retiring old diesel buses.

by andrew on Apr 11, 2012 3:30 pm • linkreport

Accountability means giving Sarles the power, authority, and responsibility necessary to run the system. Accountability is undermined through injections (like this one) into WMATA's daily operations.

I don't think anyone here has the cost/benefit data to say what the real low-hanging fruit is. Certainly no one here understands WMATA's funding structure and funding constraints.

Look, I think we all mean well here. But at some point, it's the CEO's job to run the system as best he can. If you think Sarles isn't putting enough emphasis on sustainability, that should be weighted against the alternative course of action: replacing him. Stakeholders cannot keep interfering with WMATA on funding, development, parking fares, and now sustainability and expect positive results.

by WRD on Apr 11, 2012 9:32 pm • linkreport

Metro could probably save a bundle of money by turning off all escalators and station lighting, and, as a bonus, no one would even notice!

I keed, I keed...while I agree with the idea of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" in terms of replacing light bulbs and escalators, it makes little sense to me that Metro doesn't incrementally move towards the goals of more energy-efficient lighting and escalators. Americans will get used to escalators that only turn on when someone needs to use them (and I will, eventually, no longer have to tell foreign tourists that the escalators are broken if they're stopped, not just waiting for a passenger, as they stomp on the "launch pad"), and we can slowly replace bulbs with more energy-efficient options as they burn out. Perhaps it makes sense for Metro to do some things in more of a "bulk" way (replace all the lights in a station when enough of them burn out to justify action, so that they all need to be replaced again at the same time), there's nothing preventing them from "surplussing" the used-but-not-dead bulbs for replacements in other stations not yet ready for the full upgrade (I did this in my house with the most-used bulbs...replaced them immediately with CFLs/LEDs, and stuck the working incandescents that used to be in those sockets in the closet to, eventually, replace the incandescents I hardly use and don't impact my energy consumption much).

by Ms. D on Apr 11, 2012 10:58 pm • linkreport

isn't transit inherently "green?" also, what is the incremental savings of light-bulb replacements and other simple fixes in terms of energy savings. WMATA does have a sustainability coordinator who labors hard to work with staff and project managers to emphasize "green" initiatives, however I don't know how you can assert that WMATA can save money if it tries to move towards more sustainabile practices. Have you seen the balance sheets Mr. Alpert? Are you the least bit familiarized with the payback time on these technologies and how WMATA could actually save $? I think instead of asking the transit community to become even greener, you instead focus your comments on less "green" industries, like

by uhm on Apr 12, 2012 8:48 am • linkreport

The needed efficiency with escalators replaced by stairs has little to do with energy and a lot to do with saving the required maintenance cost for a large piece of machinery.

WMATA looked at this back in 2006.

Same thing with lighting. I think LED lighting holds great potential for stations, both in reducing energy use and in providing higher quality lighting fixtures that won't need as much replacement over time.

That said, projects like that have multiple, small benefits. They justify themselves on many grounds, not just on the guise of sustainability. The payback schedules on these kinds of efficiencies is real, but it's long. It's not the kind of thing you're going to get credit for on a year to year budget process.

by Alex B. on Apr 12, 2012 8:59 am • linkreport

WMATA could save a great deal on their electricity bill if they did one simple thing, turn off 75% of the tunnel lights 24/7. They are wired to allow that. 25% of tunnel lights are as well as 25% of station lights are wired to an UPS using a separate circuit.

Before the system opened it was envisioned that 75% of the tunnel lights would not be on during regular revenue operating hours. Some where along the line the powers that be decided to leave them on 27/7.

by Sand Box John on Apr 12, 2012 10:19 am • linkreport

WMATA could save a great deal on their electricity bill if they did one simple thing

I'm skeptical already. What is "a great deal" of money?

How do you know they would save money? What do they pay to keep the lights on? What would they save if they turned them off? Give us some numbers here!

I honestly doubt WMATA's entire electricity bill, excluding train operations, is material.

by WRD on Apr 12, 2012 11:26 pm • linkreport

It strikes me if Metro would design the light fixtures to be washable and paint the light wells (The area behind the safety barriers and the tunnel walls with a bright white paint, they could deal with far less lighting.

If you look over the sides of the escalators or the passenger barriers, the walls and lights are filthy.

If they design these for routine cleaning as well as efficiency, they will do far better.

A 100% efficient light is worthless if covered in muck.

by pat b on Apr 15, 2012 8:52 pm • linkreport

If it makes sense then wait 20 years and Metro will do it. I mean, c'mon, many of us chided metro for having exposed escalators for years only to be told it was too expensive to cover them. Then, low and behold in 2004, Metro realizes it saves money to cover them.

It's a waste of time arguing with Metro. Shoot, they're still not building a third track on the Silver (or whatever it's called now) Line.

There is NO logic with Metro.

by No Faith on Apr 16, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

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