FTA Providing $180M in Low-No Emission Grants

The Federal Transit Administration is making up to $180 million in competitive grant funds through a notice of funding opportunity for its Low or No Emission or “Low-No” grant program.

[Photo courtesy of New Flyer.]

The FTA said its Low-No program helps eligible project sponsors purchase or lease low- or no-emission vehicles, while also supporting facilities that use advanced technologies to provide cleaner, more energy-efficient transit operations in communities across the country. This year’s NOFO will prioritize applications with an environmental justice component as well as those that will support workforce development activities to help America’s transit workers succeed, the agency said.

“The Biden Administration is committed to investing in clean transportation, and the Low or No Emission Program will put more American-made, energy-efficient buses into service across the country,” noted U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement. “This is an important step forward in ensuring that communities have access to high-quality, zero-emission transportation options.”

“Through the Low-No grant program, transit operators nationwide have the ability to replace aging buses near the end of their lifecycle with newer, cleaner models that are more efficient to operate and maintain,” added FTA Acting Administrator Nuria Fernandez.

In support of President Biden’s climate crisis executive order issued on January 20, FTA is placing a priority on projects that will help improve air quality in specific “non-attainment areas” around the country. 

FTA also said all capital procurements made via these funds must meet its Buy America requirements, which mandate that all iron, steel, and manufactured products be produced in the United States. It also requires that the cost of components and subcomponents of rolling stock produced in the United States must be more than 70 percent of the cost of all components.  Additionally, as part of FTA’s commitment to helping transit professionals keep up-to-date on technological advancements, the agency said Low-No recipients are permitted and encouraged to use up to 0.5 percent of these grant awards for workforce development activities, with an additional 0.5 percent available to cover costs associated with training at the National Transit Institute.

New Renewable Energy Contracts in Effect at MBTA

Two 100 percent renewable energy contracts between the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and BP Energy Company and Direct Energy LLC recently went into effect – reducing the agency’s carbon footprint and saving it over $3 million per year.

[Photo courtesy of the Massachusetts Governor’s Office.]

“These important investments in fully renewable energy, highlighted by the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits for the entirety of our electricity load, mean that the T has a dedicated commitment to electricity produced from renewable energy sources,” explained Steve Poftak, MBTA’s general manager, in a statement. “With the beginning of these new contracts, the T continues to expand its use of renewable energy in its portfolio, and furthers its commitment to supporting sustainable transit.”

MBTA – the public transit division of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which provides subway, bus, commuter rail, ferry, and paratransit service to eastern Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island – finalized those two contracts in October 2020.

Steve Poftak (r) with MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack. Photo by Joshua Qualls/Massachusetts Governor’s Office.

The total cost for those two contracts – which make the MBTA the largest transit agency in the United States to be 100 percent renewable – is approximately $12.13 million annually for a three-year term. The contracts include the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits or RECs for 100 percent of the MBTA’s electricity load as well as provisions for providing 70 percent of the electricity at a fixed price.

Purchasing RECs means the MBTA has bought electricity from a renewable power source with each certificate equivalent to the generation of one-megawatt hour or MWh of electricity, the agency said.

The MBTA added that it has a number of additional renewable energy projects completed and currently underway. One involves using two wind turbines in Kingston and Bridgewater help power MBTA facilities with electrical power; with the capability to sell unused power back to the electrical grid. Another involves small scale solar projects are complete at Orient Heights and Braintree Stations with solar canopy installation recently completed at three additional MBTA sites and more sites currently being explored.

Upcoming renewable energy projects to develop include the launch of a new solar power purchase agreement, the development of solar arrays at bus garages and train stations, along with further research into the potential for the MBTA to become an “anchor customer” for upcoming offshore wind projects.

Regional GHG Emission Reduction Consortium Takes Shape

The states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, along with the District of Columbia, signed a memorandum of understanding or MOU on December 21 committing themselves to a “multi-jurisdictional program” to pursue systematic and substantial reductions in motor vehicle greenhouse gas or GHG emissions while “re-investing” $300 million annually in cleaner transportation infrastructure.

[Graphic provided by the Connecticut Governor’s Office.]

The new Transportation and Climate Initiative Program or TCI-P is the outgrowth of collaboration between 12 Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast states and the District of Columbia known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative. Originally formed in 2019, the TCI issued a nine-page draft policy proposal in December 2019 for establishing a cap on GHG emissions from transportation fuels while investing millions of dollars annually to develop cleaner transportation systems and more resilient transportation infrastructure.

The signatories said the TCI-P’s funding would result from the mandated purchase of “emission allowances” by gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers. The total number of allowances would decline each year, resulting in less transportation pollution, they said, with each participating jurisdiction independently deciding how to invest program proceeds to achieve the goals of the MOU.

In a statement, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont (D) said the TCI-P MOU should reduce transportation-related GHGs in his state by at least 26 percent from 2022 to 2032 and generate annual revenue due to emission allowances fees of up to $89 million in 2023 – increasing to as much as $117 million in 2032. Gov. Lamont said Connecticut would re-invest those funds in “equitable and cleaner transportation options,” creating an employment program across transit, construction, and green energy – serving as a “catalyst” for infrastructure development through the next decade and beyond.

“Engaging in this way with my fellow governors and Mayor Bowser accomplishes goals we have set for Connecticut for years,” the governor explained.

“Participating in the TCI-P will help grow our economy through a fresh injection of capital to provide for jobs and new infrastructure,” Gov. Lamont added. “This collaboration will cut our greenhouse gas emissions, and it will make our urban centers healthier, after decades of being adversely impacted by the emissions being released by traffic every day.”

“By partnering with our neighbor states with which we share tightly connected economies and transportation systems, we can make a more significant impact on climate change while creating jobs and growing the economy as a result,” added Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R).

“This first-of-its-kind program will provide $20 million annually for public transit, safe streets for bikers and pedestrians, and other green projects,” noted Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (D). “Most importantly, it will provide much-needed relief for the urban communities who suffer lifelong health problems as a result of dirty air.”

The MOU also commits those three states and the District of Columbia to allot no less than 35 percent of annual emission allowances proceeds to assist communities “overburdened and underserved” by the current transportation system.

Two Studies Examine Benefits, Hurdles of ‘Decarbonization’ Strategies

Efforts to “decarbonize” America’s transportation system to reduce greenhouse gas or GHG emissions could produce widespread health benefits, according to one report, but simultaneously face major cost and technological hurdles, a separate study noted.

[Photo courtesy of the New York State Department of Transportation.]

First, a report by the Transportation, Equity, Climate and Health or TRECH project headed by Harvard University analyzed the potential benefits of GHG reduction efforts being considered by the Transportation Climate Initiative – a regional coalition of 12 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, along with the District of Columbia, that is expected to finalize a memorandum of understanding this fall.

According to a statement, the TRECH project report said the estimated health benefits from changes in active mobility and on-road emissions under the TCI policy scenarios include up to about 1,000 deaths avoided and nearly 5,000 childhood asthma cases avoided annually, if full implementation of those policies occurs in 2032. Furthermore, the “monetized value” of the subset of total health benefits included in the report are “larger than the estimated annual TCI program proceeds in 2032” under all of the TCI policy scenarios.

The TRECH Project added that its analysis “does not include climate-related health benefits and other potential health benefits from improving transportation systems” such as those from reduced traffic congestion and noise pollution as well as improved traffic safety and access to jobs, healthcare, and education.

However, a separate study conducted by the Brookings Institution cautioned that there are major “decarbonization challenges” when it comes to transitioning medium- and heavy-duty vehicles away from petroleum-based fuels and propulsion systems, which generate large amounts of carbon emissions.

“The degree of difficulty in decarbonizing transport varies across the sector. Electrification is relatively easy for smaller vehicles that travel shorter distances carrying lighter loads,” the organization noted in a statement. “For these vehicles, the added weight of a battery is less of a hindrance and the inherently simpler and more efficient electric motor and drivetrain make up for some of the weight penalty. However, the heavier forms of transportation are among the fastest growing, meaning that we must consider solutions for these more difficult vehicles as well.”

The Brookings Institution noted in its report that while “technology exists to decarbonize the heavy transport sector,” many of those advanced technologies “are expensive and not proven at scale.”

The report added that the challenge for policymakers will be keeping technology advances and policy in alignment as the technology advances. “The COVID-19 pandemic adds a degree of difficulty since it is unclear how it may shift demand and consumer preferences in transport,” the group noted. “For example, consumers may remain reluctant to use urban public transport, and shorter supply chains may be attractive to businesses seeking to become more resilient in the face of a global disruption.”

FHWA Unveils New CMAQ Emissions Calculator

The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement or CMAQ program offered via the Federal Highway Administration provides funding to state and local governments for transportation projects and programs that reduce emissions and help improve air quality and congestion. And to help those agencies track the emissions benefits of their projects, the FHWA developed and is now rolling out a new CMAQ Emissions Calculator Toolkit.

“CMAQ project justification as well as annual reporting require the development of reliable air quality benefit estimates,” the agency explained. “Realizing that every potential project sponsor may not have the capacity for developing independent air quality benefit estimates, the FHWA has undertaken the initiative of developing a series of spreadsheet based tools to facilitate the calculation of representative air quality benefit data.”

There are 10 tools currently available which cover a wide range of CMAQ-eligible project types, including: bicycle-pedestrian improvements; transit service and fleet expansion; alternative fuels and vehicles; diesel retrofit/repower; and traffic flow improvements.

More information about the new CMAQ tools can be found by clicking here.

Can Highway Construction Achieve “Net Zero” Carbon Emissions?

What does it mean to be “net zero” in the transportation world today?  When talking about carbon emissions, it refers to achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere.

For example, the building industry has been working toward “net zero” infrastructure for years.  According to the World Green Building Council, buildings are currently responsible for 39 percent of global energy-related carbon emissions: with 28 percent coming from operational emissions – from the energy needed to heat, cool, and power the structures – and the remaining 11 percent from materials and construction. 

Though highway roads and structures do not have the same level of operating emissions as a building, “embodied” carbon from the construction process significantly adds to transportation’s carbon footprint. Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint of a material. It considers how many greenhouse gases (GHGs) are released throughout the supply chain. This includes the extraction of materials from the ground, transport, refining, processing, assembly, in-use and finally its end of life recycling of disposal.  

The building industry now believes that embodied carbon in projects can be reduced 10 percent to 20 percent without increasing capital costs. One new study out of Sweden believes net-zero carbon emissions in construction supply chains can be reached by 2045.

Photo courtesy Hawaii DOT

But what exactly does this mean for highway and bridge construction? Many believe that policy is the starting point for significant reductions in carbon in highway projects. Globally, many countries are already requiring “net zero” infrastructure design. In Sweden, for instance, large transport infrastructure projects (roads, rail, tunnels) are required to calculate and report embodied carbon and monetary incentives awarded if embodied carbon is below a specified target. 

Some state departments of transportation are already working toward similar goals. For example, the Hawaii Department of Transportation started a testing project in 2019 using a concrete mix injected with waste carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is mixed into the concrete using CarbonCure technology. The resulting product traps carbon dioxide in mineral form within the concrete and improves the comprehensive strength of the material. 

The test project involves a pour of 150 cubic yards of carbon-injected concrete next to an equivalent pour of standard concrete mix on an access road for the Kapolei Interchange. This test will allow the Hawaii DOT to do a side-by-side comparison of the carbon reducing mix versus a standard mix to determine specifications for the use of carbon-injected concrete for road projects in the future.

“We’ve seen the benefits to CO2 mineralized concrete and will be using it when appropriate in Hawaii’s road and bridge projects,” explained Ed Sniffen, Hawaii DOT’s deputy director for highways. “The availability of environmentally friendly materials such as carbon injected concrete is necessary for us to move forward in reducing the carbon footprint of our construction projects.” 

In an interview with Smart Cities Dive, Sniffen added that the carbon-injected material has turned out to be stronger and more workable, with no increase in cost over traditional concrete. “The overall carbon savings is significant,” he said. “We reduce it overall about 1,500 pounds into the environment. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but really, that equals up to one car driving 1,600 miles continuously. So, it builds up quite a bit.”

How can such “embodied” carbon in highway construction be reduced? In general, highway designers can use Life Cycle Analysis based tools to determine the environmental footprint of a whole project and search for ways to reduce life cycle GHG emissions and other impacts through strategies such as:

  • Ensuring efficient use of materials (i.e. “right-sizing”)
  • Selecting materials with more efficient manufacturing processes
  • Minimizing transportation impacts through use of local materials
  • Using robust materials that require less maintenance, repair, and refurbishment
  • Choosing materials that can be reused or recycled instead of landfilled

Although there may be a learning curve and increased costs initially to incorporate embodied carbon reduction into construction decisions, it appears that the incremental costs of incorporating this analysis is comparatively small for the potential benefit it could provide. Complicated decisions and life cycle analysis must be done from the planning phase of the project through design and construction to significantly reduce embodied carbon and hit the “net zero” goal. In the future, these efforts will be driven by government policy and environmental stewardship of firms and contractors. It is inevitable that the wave of “net zero” goals in the building industry will continue to transition into the highway industry as well.