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The University of Texas at Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs



Op-Ed

CapMetro Has Us Choked Up

The Daily Texan, February 19, 2007

Let me introduce you to a part of campus that I like to call the "Corridor of Death."

I'm referring to the stretch of 23rd Street that parallels the north end of Memorial Stadium, between San Jacinto Boulevard and Robert Dedman Drive. The combination of the diesel exhaust from the construction equipment at the stadium and the buses lined up across the street idling makes for a deadly combination for students' lungs. While the stadium construction certainly contributes its fair share of lung-clogging pollution (from exhaust and unsuppressed dust), I am concerned about the unnecessary idling of the Capital Metro shuttle buses.

Diesel exhaust contains small, soot-like particles called particulate matter (PM), smog-forming pollutants and other air toxins. Due to their miniscule size, PM can lodge in the deepest recesses of our lungs, causing long-term damage and respiratory problems, as well as exacerbating existing asthma and allergies. The UT campus is one of, if not the most, pedestrian-friendly areas in Austin. Therefore, its students are in greater danger of being exposed to these irritants as they walk by or ride on the buses.

In addition, Austin is in danger of violating the federal air quality standard for ozone. The city has gone to great and costly lengths to voluntarily reduce its ozone-causing emissions to avoid being designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as violating the air quality standard. One such measure the city implemented is a city-wide, heavy-duty vehicle idling restriction that took effect Dec. 11, 2006. Capital Metro buses are subject to this ordinance that limits engine idling for more than five consecutive minutes.

However, when I recently asked a UT shuttle driver why drivers did not turn off their buses when they take their breaks, he was unsure of the reason, but thought that idling did not matter, because the buses do not consume much fuel anyway.

The driver was correct in thinking about idling in terms of fuel use. But his conclusion is false. A common misconception exists that idling saves fuel by not having to restart the engine. But idling for more than 10 seconds actually uses more fuel than restarting the engine. In fact, based on my Enfield Road shuttle riding experience, each bus spends just under two hours idling each day, which equates to roughly $490 to $760 in fuel costs thrown away per bus per year (the low estimate represents idling without the A/C running, while the high estimate is with A/C).

Despite these idling wastes, I'm more concerned about the harmful pollution that it creates. Each Enfield Road bus annually emits between 79 and 109 pounds of smog-forming nitrogen oxides - again, depending on if the bus uses A/C. This pollution could easily be avoided by shutting down the engine when not in use.

As with all regulations, there are exceptions to the rule. Buses are allowed to exceed the five minute idling limit if having the engine on is necessary for the operation of A/C or other means of maintaining passenger comfort and safety, which is certainly understandable given the temperature extremes of Central Texas. However, buses along the Corridor of Death rarely hold any passengers while on break. Drivers are frequently not even on the buses. In the name of bystander safety, the buses should be turned off during these break periods.

Capital Metro is generally on the forefront of clean air technologies. For example, its buses began fueling with ultra-low sulfur diesel, a cleaner burning diesel fuel, in 2003, three years earlier than required by federal law. Similarly, Capital Metro is testing two hybrid-electric buses that reduce PM emissions by up to 90 percent and NOx emissions by up to 50 percent.

However, failure to require its drivers to abide by the idling ordinance is not only inconsiderate of our health, it is fiscally irresponsible. Capital Metro, you can and must do better.

Our lungs demand it.

Cregar is a master of public affairs candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Copyright 2007 The Daily Texan