Agency still relies on dirty diesel fleet
Despite its green credentials, TriMet has long operated one of the dirtiest big-city bus fleets on the West Coast, a review by the Portland Tribune shows.
Greater Portland's transit agency has continued running the most polluting type of diesel motors long after other agencies added filters to their buses to curb cancer-causing emissions. Portland's air is among the most diesel-polluted in the country, and the annual tally of diesel-related premature deaths statewide may run as high as 460.
The agency's website indicates its older, unfiltered diesel engines have been retrofitted. But in reality, TriMet canceled its retrofit program in 2011 after outfitting less than half of its fleet with clean-air filters.
Furthermore, for the past seven years TriMet has declined to apply for federal grants that could have covered the full cost of the clean-air retrofits, including labor, the agency concedes.
Read the Portland Tribune's accompanying story, TriMet slow to board electric bandwagon
The failure to clean up all of TriMet's buses apparently stems from years of budget problems that several years ago led to a renegotiated union contract and an increase to its payroll tax.
It's the same issue that has prevented a more aggressive pursuit of electric buses. "A lot of it is a matter of money, to be honest with you," said TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, when asked about electric buses. "We've prioritized growing the service."
Mary Peveto, a Portland clean-air activist, says she was dismayed to learn TriMet has for years made no effort to upgrade so many of its older buses, which generate 10 times the diesel pollution of new, filtered buses.
"It feels that, for whatever reason, the negative impact that TriMet has on people's health due to emissions just hasn't been a priority for that agency," Peveto said.
While TriMet constitutes a small percentage of the region's overall diesel emissions, health officials say its contribution is significant because buses run where people live, walk and ride their bikes. One study showed passengers in unfiltered buses are subjected to elevated levels of diesel pollution.
Many large urban bus agencies began adding diesel filters to their older diesel buses in the 1990s and early 2000s. New York City added them in 2004. Vancouver, Washington, completed its clean-air retrofits in 2008. Filters became the law nationally in 2007, but only for new buses. California adopted even tougher rules.
TriMet retrofitted about 196 older buses with filters between 2007 and 2010, but that covered only a fraction of the agency's 600-bus fleet. One filter used by TriMet cost $11,500 per bus. The agency added 40 cleaner, filtered buses in 2009, but did not start buying more buses again until 2012.
As a result, the agency ran more than 200 unfiltered buses for five years after the industry standard became filters. The agency still has 105 unfiltered buses, albeit about 30 of them are used infrequently.
In the Tribune's survey of larger West Coast transit agencies, only one agency had more unfiltered buses, California's Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority with 120, and most had none. Santa Clara also uses 202 diesel-hybrids that typically run significantly cleaner than TriMet's newer diesel buses.
Asked why they halted their clean-air retrofit program in 2011, TriMet officials cited a lack of funding and maintenance staff. They said the agency didn't want to incur any additional maintenance costs created by unexpectedly frequent filter cleanings.
"We just saw a huge load on our maintenance department for these retrofit buses," said spokesperson Angela Murphy. "We had some performance issues with the filters, we had maintenance issues, and we were nearing the point of having to take buses off the street."
As for why they did not simply switch to a better product and ask for federal funding, Murphy said the agency didn't want to invest in a bus that would be replaced anyway.
TriMet officials cite other environmental measures that earned it a gold-level sustainability award from the American Public Transportation Association, one of 15 agencies to do so. Four do better, at platinum level.
His predecessor, Fred Hansen, used to talk often about his agency's environmental leadership. But McFarlane says TriMet's priorities haven't changed. "I still would say we are an environmental leader."
Interestingly, TriMet's website has, for six years, presented an inaccurate rosy picture of its bus fleet's emissions, using graphics and text to indicate that its emissions had plunged precipitously, when the reductions and improvements were far less or more gradual than indicated.
One chart, labeled "TriMet's Emissions Reductions, showed the tail end of a bus bearing the label "emission levels," and numbers showing a huge plunge in emissions between 1988 and 2010.
In reality, the numbers actually refer to changing federal standards for new bus engine emissions TriMet officials confirmed Tuesday. Since TriMet averaged only nine new buses purchased per year in a nine-year span between 2003 and 20011, and outfitted less than half its fleet with filters, its real-life tailpipe emissions dropped far less than did the chart with numbers that referred to regulations for new buses. The chart used numbers identical to an internal chart with a very diferent title, "emisson regulations."
"This chart was created in 2010," said Murphy, when asked to explain why the title inaccurately portrayed the chart as showing actual diesel emissions. "I guess I can't defend what happened in 2010. I'm sorry if this is misleading."
Eric Hesse, TriMet's point person on environmental standards, agreed, saying, "I can certainly see where that title could be a bit confusing..."
Similarly, a separate web page suggested that TriMet had added clean-air filters to all its older buses, not just a fraction of them as actually occurred. "Fact 1: By retrofitting older buses with high-tech filters, eliminating 90 percent of their emissions, our old buses now run as clean as brand new ones." In reality, in 2010, only less than half of the older buses received the necessary filters to run as clean as new ones."
When this was read to Hesse, he replied, "I think that campaign also was in about 2010 . . . and it's funny because I had thought we had removed all this from the website but I see that it's live, still. Because we have not updated this in a long time... it seems like it's probably time to make sure to revisit that or make sure that things are clear here."
By Thursday, TriMet had removed the misleading chart, but the language from 2010 remained that inaccurately suggested all TriMet's older buses had been retrofitted with clean air filters.