Light rail is not environmentally friendly

October 2, 2013 at 8:17 am 1 comment

Light rail will be great for the environment with all the energy we’ll save by taking those dirty cars off the roads. Right?

Based on Southwest LRT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), that sure looks true. For the 3A route, the locally preferred alternative, about 54 billion BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy could be saved by 2030 (p. 142). [A BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit.]

However, just as there are capital costs to build the rail line, there are also “capital” energy costs. But the DEIS doesn’t list any. It acknowledges them and comes to this conclusion:

Because the operation of any of the Build Alternatives would use slightly more energy than the operation of a No Build Alternative, the energy used in construction would not be recouped as a result of the project.

“Slightly more energy”?  That’s not good enough, so to estimate how much energy will be used in construction, let’s take a page from the light rail proponents’ playbook and compare our rail systems to other cities.

Portland’s South Corridor – 4.87 trillion BTUs to build 13.2 miles (p. S-20)
Seattle’s Lynnwood Link – 5.2 – 6.9 trillion BTUs to build 8.5 miles (p. 4-163)

More data would be nice, but these numbers are very hard to find. There weren’t any construction energy estimates for the Central Corridor, nor for about a dozen transit projects searched from around the country. A couple ignored the issue altogether, but most had some token dismissal, like this one from Houston’s University Corridor DEIS: “Construction-related activities would be localized and would not expect to impact regional energy consumption.” It makes you think the people who are supposed to be paying attention to these reports aren’t reviewing them if the energy consumption of a multi-year construction project to build 19 stations along 11.3 miles of double track and requiring concrete, steel, electricity, diesel fuel, wire, pipe or many other materials can be dismissed as immaterial.

So coming back to SWLRT’s 54 billion BTUs of energy saved each year… If we pull a number in the middle of the range of the construction energy consumption estimates of Portland and Seattle, say 5.4 trillion (to make the math easy), it will take 100 years to make up the energy costs of SWLRT’s construction.

Oh well. At least there’s some savings to look forward to eventually, even though none of us will be around to pop champagne for it.  In contrast, the Central Corridor will consume MORE energy for its operation than the no-build or bus rapid transit alternatives (p. 4-57).

Don’t hold your breath for any “capital” energy estimates in Bottineau’s DEIS (draft environmental impact statement).  It doesn’t fit with the narrative.


Entry filed under: Transportation.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jesse  |  October 30, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    Well there are capital costs to building cars too, not just the gasoline used to move them.


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