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RTA embraces sustainability challenge, sets aggressive targets

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/31/11 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transit

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain

-America

In some ways the Cleveland region's public transit agency is a wanderer in the desert-it's been years since the rains of growth, and no relief's in sight. Ohio is a mirage of help, a provider of drops when a deluge would do. The U.S. House of Representatives is also ready to let the well run dry – threatening to cut off funding that will amount to one-third of Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's budget.

Most desert animals have evolved both behavioral and physiological mechanisms to solve the heat and water problems the desert environment creates. With more dry years ahead, RTA's survival may depend on how deeply sustainability is embedded in the DNA of its 2,400 employees.

It started in 2009 when RTA signed, with 41 transit operators, the American Public Transit Association sustainability challenge – setting them on the path to energy and water conservation, emissions and waste reductions, and greener fleets.

The program has been a rainmaker. Three important things started happening: RTA hired Danielle Willis to head its sustainability effort, the agency started setting goals-i.e. reduce energy use from buildings by 30 percent-and its pursuit of competitive federal grants to pay for green initiatives started bearing fruit. RTA won a $4.9 million federal grant for bus facility upgrades-replacing 22,000 lights with ultra-efficient LEDs and installing insulated roofs. It's already producing results (1.22 million kilowatt-hours reduction-and hundreds of thousands of dollars saved last year-at the largest such facility).

The agency is pursuing LEED certification for new transit stations, for example, the recent Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (STJ) transfer station at E. 22nd and Prospect was built to LEED-Silver standards, and a $10.5 million TIGER II grant for the University Circle Rapid station will include "a lot of sustainable amenities," says Willis. "You could possibly see a green rooftop."

More impressive than green technology, in Willis' mind, is the culture shift she's witnessed since the agency adopted a Zero Waste goal: 100% landfill free by 2016. RTA kicked off the program with a survey of all employees.

"We tried to find out where their knowledge was because we wanted an employee driven program. We're learning from them," said Willis who presented on employee engagement at a recent APTA conference.

"Most companies when they start sustainability programs have a "this must happen" attitude. There's value there in listening to employees, to get their knowledge and practice. Now we have employees who are voluntarily giving their input."

RTA's Zero Waste goal represents the largest employee pool in Cleveland. The only other transit agency to sign the APTA sustainability pledge and set a Zero Waste 'BHAG' is San Francisco, she added. Zero waste also makes good business sense for RTA.

"We looked at how much we're spending on our waste hauling contract, and figured out that it's 13 percent of our costs. We knew there could be reductions there."

Rather than just put out bins and call it a day, they included an educational campaign with posters and recycling videos starring employees and used a small Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District grant to purchase recycling bins for 25 break rooms. "The impact has been phenomenal."

Meanwhile, Willis has started an inventory of RTA's carbon emissions as part of a 10-year carbon management plan. While she didn't specify the release date for the plan, the next step is targets for reduction, based on "global benchmark for emissions." A similar effort is underway for water use.

When asked if RTA has a similar effort around clean and efficient fuels or renewables, for example, to power its electric train fleet, Willis responded: "We're in the process. In 2010, we started looking at where fuel consumption can be reduced, and we're looking to show how we're reducing emissions." RTA's enrolled in the Ohio Green Fleets Program under Clean Fuels Ohio to research and implement clean fuels and or emission reduction opportunities from its current fleet.

Willis also cites RTA's recent foray in promoting a bike-transit connection-they purchased and installed six covered bike racks at stations: At STJ (2), Southgate, Shaker, W. 117 and Trisket. She also touted the recent solar bus shelter pilot project in Cleveland Heights, and made a pitch for partnerships like that with Forest City which led to 18 recycling bins at Tower City.

"We're looking to improve our lifecycle and cost efficiency," Willis concludes. "We had to concentrate on a bottom line business value, and that's why we chose sustainability, for its triple bottom line approach. We believe we can gain the greatest investment from that business value and benchmark the impact on financial efficiency."

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