SEPTA goes green, but for the right reasons?

SEPTA took its first tenuous steps toward becoming an environmentally friendly transportation network by finally placing an order for 400 hybrid diesel buses, the first hundred of which will go into service in July. In addition to the 32 proof-of-concept hybrids already in service, this will create one of the largest fleets of hybrid buses in the nation.Breaching SEPTA’s wall of public scrutiny is difficult enough when you have a legitimate problem, and getting someone to speak with you for comment is an exercise in painful dentistry. I was referred to a press release put out in September that extolled the glorious virtues of SEPTA’s $253 million investment.It is certainly nothing to sneeze at, even disregarding the massive initial cost. SEPTA claims that the buses are 29 percent more fuel efficient than a standard diesel bus and emit 80 percent less carbon monoxide. Hybrid vehicles also cut down on the need for brake maintenance as the electric motor brings the wheels to a stop reducing the need for actual brake pads. All great things.However, the pessimistic Philadelphian in me simmers with doubts. It is SEPTA after all, and they’re not exactly a model of effective transit management or forward thinking.First, SEPTA’s claims about reducing emissions only apply to greenhouse gases. Burning diesel fuel is still burning diesel fuel, and it releases lots of environmentally friendly, but very unhealthy particles during combustion. Hybrid vehicles do not reduce particulate emissions at all, which is unfortunate because they can cause all manner of respiratory problems in children and the elderly. This is a serious issue, and while I applaud SEPTA for jumping on the carbon neutral platform now that it is politically correct to do so, the lack of address paid to hazardous particle emission continues to threaten the health of our citizens in the short term.Furthermore, while hybrids do reduce certain maintenance costs because of their increased durability, SEPTA doesn’t include the added costs of having to retrain mechanic crews to work on the hybrid vehicles. This is not even to mention the costs of disposing of the numerous and bulky batteries used in hybrid vehicles, which are also difficult to dispose of in an environmentally friendly way.I am certainly not opposed to environmental friendliness, of course. On the contrary, I would consider it the mandate of our generation to begin the long process of healing ecological damage. However, the process of healing these wounds is expensive and time consuming, and I dislike the idea of committing hundreds of millions of dollars to an imperfect system. Especially a system that does not address the health concerns of citizens, and which will likely eat up millions of dollars that could be spent on the next, cleaner, greener transportation system.At this very moment, SEPTA has two intact but inactive trolley lines, and close to half a dozen inactive trolley-bus systems, both of which are completely electric and cause no emissions or adverse health effects. While other cities are scrambling to build new light rail and trolley-ways, we ignore what we already have and elect to spend our money perpetuating an inefficient, ill-used and polluting bus network.Ryan Briggs can be reached at


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