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Monday, April 13, 2009

Is the Recession good for the Pittsburgh Region's Air Quality?

Illyrias points us to this PG article about Pittsburgh's air quality getting better. The article is titled "Air Quality improves as economy worsens." Is this a "bright side" to the recession? No, because the only "bright sides" to recessions and crises is when they force you to finally make changes that will leave you better off than you were before things went down the crapper. For Pittsburgh, this isn't a bright side because once the economy gets back on track the air quality will go up to the old levels. It's like gasoline prices - sure, the prices are reasonable now, but it took a global economic collapse to get them to that point, so are we now better off because gasoline prices were chopped in half? Heck no. Something has to fundamentally change so that once things return to normal - when there are more trucks on the roads and when factories are running closer to full utilization - our air quality doesn't return to prior levels.

Here is an example of something we can do right now to improve regional air quality in the long run. The Port Authority of Allegheny County should finally convert it's fleet of buses to run on compressed natural gas. Washington DC's buses run on natural gas and diesel electric hybrids. Unlike the buses here, DC buses do not emit the sooty black exhaust that has led to terrible, some would say toxic, air quality in downtown Pittsburgh. The buses run all over town, so there is no doubt that they have contributed to the region's poor air quality rankings, and recent studies have shown how bad air quality in cities, caused primarily by exhaust, have damaging effects on our heath and longevity.

Did you know that as far back as 1990 the Port Authority was testing compressed natural gas fuel for its buses? Yep - but Port Authority - Equitable partnership received half a million dollars to test CNG buses back in the early 90's.

As part of a nationwide effort to test alternative fuels under the Alternative Fuels Initiative Program sponsored by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (now Federal Transit Administration), the Authority ordered five natural gas buses to test and evaluate their performance and effectiveness in helping to reduce air pollution. Testing of compressed natural gas was made possible through a special agreement with Equitable Gas Company, which contributed $500,000 toward the project for installation of a compressing and fueling station at the Authority’s West Mifflin Division.
Despite being way ahead of the curve we only have 5 buses (out of nearly 1000 total, so .5% ) running on CNG today. Why was it never expanded to the broader fleet? It's the same reason the County Commission killed Spine Line project and brought us the North Shore Connector - they suffer from a lack of vision and a failure to relate to the needs of the masses - yet the voters fail to hold them accountable when it's time to go to the polls.

A friend of mine used to work for equitable and he gave me a packet of information and old news clippings on this. It is interesting to read press clippings from 1990 and think of how progressive the Port Authority could have been. It's a shame that the Port Authority didn't have the vision and leadership to follow through on this initiative. It's a shame because we get much more of our natural gas domestically than we do oil, and compressed natural gas fuel is much cleaner and emits a lot less CO2 than our diesel powered buses. Another option for our bus fleet is diesel-electric hybrid buses, or, for the smaller shuttle buses, 100% electric power. These buses are on the market and are used in cities throughout the world. It is time for Pittsburgh's buses to spot spewing soot and to put the region on track to have sustained air quality improvements. If Allegheny County sincerely wants to be "green" then they should take the steps to expand their CNG fleet. All buses that are being retired and replaced should be replaced with cleaner burning, more efficient buses running on CNG or Hybrid electric. This needs to be the standard going forward.

1 comment:

East Busway Blogger said...

Classic Pittsburgh, sad to say...What is there to say about it? Just another opportunity that Pittsburgh and especially the Port Authority have squandered.