Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Comments from CETA to Sound Transit Board on the Seattle Light Rail Tunnel and Global Warming

John Niles, April 27, 2006

Emory Bundy summarized the carbon emissions problem with Sound Transit's University Link in a July 2007 essay specially prepared for the online newspaper Crosscut titled "The carbon cost of building and operating light rail."


Good afternoon and thank you. I'm John Niles, Technical Chair of the pro-transit Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives (CETA). We are in favor of mass transit, but we oppose massive transit that costs way too much for what it does.

 Flash:  On June 6, 2006 FTA issued a Record of Decision that includes a response to CETA's request to U.S Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that a full explanation and justification of North Link's CO2 emissions during construction be provided. FTA agrees with CETA's calculations of CO2 emissions, but claims that a 100 year recovery of the CO2 emitted during construction is adequate. The Record of Decision is posted here.

Case in point is today’s agenda item to authorize University Link light rail, which would include the first three miles of the multi-billion dollar, six-mile train tunnel on the route between Westlake Center and Northgate. These resources would be better spent on improvement and expansion of bus service, ride sharing, and transportation demand management. King County Metro’s new Transit Now initiative for more Rapid Bus service coverage is more to our liking. So too is City of Seattle’s Urban Village Transit Network. Neither of these initiatives is incorporated in the alternatives analysis to date, but should be in the next review cycle for FTA New Starts. That’s for later.

But, today, whether or not the Board decides to take the next step on University Link light rail via Resolution R2006-07, I implore you to deal forthrightly with an important environmental issue implied by the North Link Final SEIS. That issue is the relationship of University Link to greenhouse gas emissions and climate protection. Is building it good or bad for global warming?

On the one hand, people taking trips on electric light rail instead of gasoline-powered cars or trucks yields a reduction in CO2 greenhouse gas emissions on the day of the trips. The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for North Link provides energy consumption data and conservation data that can be converted to greenhouse gas emissions. North Link Light Rail in operation, were it to be eventually built, would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 14 thousand tons annually from operations that save on SOV travel.

To put that in perspective, 14 thousand tons is about two percent of the annual CO2 reduction recommended by the Seattle Mayor’s Green Ribbon Commission on Climate Protection.

But a problem lies in the 640 thousand tons of greenhouse gas generated by the seven year construction of North Link, of which University Link is the next step. The EIS for North Link reports that its construction consumes an amount of energy that CETA figures is equivalent to a line of tanker trucks from Union Station to the Canadian border, each carrying 8000 gallons of diesel. Fortunately, some of that construction energy will come from non-polluting hydropower energy sources. The line of tanker trucks would only reach to the La Connor exit, or to Mt Vernon.

Let’s generously assume that a full 50% of the energy to construct North Link comes from City Light and BPA dams. In this case, the other 50% converted to fuel for construction vehicles like dump trucks hauling tunnel dirt yields a total CO2 emission of 640 thousand metric tons, greenhouse gas poured into the atmosphere during a seven year construction period.

Here’s the rub: 640 thousand metric tons emitted now – against just 14 thousand annual metric tons saved later. This estimate implies about 45 years to get the CO2 in balance. Is putting out a lot of CO2 now to get a net saving that won’t be realized until four decades later a good thing or bad?

Before letting FTA issue a Final Record of Decision on North Link, Sound Transit and City of Seattle should inform the people of the region in plain English what the full life cycle of North Link light rail means for climate change.

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