South Philly paves the way toward transit sustainability

SEPTA’s Southern Bus Depot recently unveiled three new energy-saving projects, including more than two dozen electric-battery buses.

From stormwater management to battery-electric buses, SEPTA’s Southern Bus Depot, 1940 Johnston St., was selected as the subject of a colossal citywide sustainability project with the public transportation agency. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

A century-old trolley barn at 20th and Johnston streets is pioneering the future of public transit. 

SEPTA’s sustainability program, SEP-TAINABLE, recently unveiled the completion of one of its most comprehensive “green” projects to date in South Philadelphia. 

From stormwater management to battery-electric buses, the series of three innovative undertakings works to improve environmental, economic and social means of transportation in South Philly, as SEPTA’s Southern Bus Depot, 1940 Johnston St., was selected as the subject of a colossal citywide sustainability project.

The massive advancement is comprised of not only renewable energy-run buses but environmentally sound modifications to the 100-year-old South Philly bus depot, which once served as a terminal for trolleys in the early 20th century. 

“I think sustainability and the transit industry have always gone hand-in-hand,” said Becky Collins, corporate initiatives manager of the Sustainability Office of Innovation at SEPTA. “Because transit is inherently sustainable – getting people off the road and out of single occupancy vehicles, putting them in more efficient vehicles, reducing green gas emissions…Transit and sustainability have had a long history together”

The three projects, which include an energy retrofit of the Southern District, a new stormwater management system in the facility and SEPTA’s first battery-electric buses, were funded through city department and federal grants as well as cost-neutral operations.

Over the last few years, SEPTA collaborated with an Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) to evaluate SEPTA facilities across the city in need of sustainable capital renovations. Through the Pennsylvania Guaranteed Energy Savings Act (GESA), ESCOs can partner with public agencies to finance energy-saving physical improvements to buildings. 

With no upfront costs to the agency through GESA, SEPTA will pay back the costs through savings received from the improvements, as $2.4 million in energy and water saving measures were invested into the Southern Bus Depot, according to Collins.

“We knew there was a lot of opportunity to approve the efficiency at the location,” she said. 

Through the ESCO evaluations, the Southern Bus Depot received a scope of enhancements installed by energy retailer Constellation over the last two years. The additions included high-efficiency LED lighting, rapid roll-up doors, HVAC upgrades and low-flush toilets. SEPTA says the sustainable implementations have reduced utility costs by more than $200,000 per year. 

As the construction broke ground in 2017, SEPTA was presented with another improvement possibility as antiquated trolley tracks were being excavated from the site. 

While the facility was required to manage a small portion of stormwater, SEPTA decided to increase the management for almost the entire facility after receiving a $842,500 grant from the Philadelphia Water Department. 

“I think this really speaks to the commitment of organizations within the city of Philadelphia where we’re really trying to work with one another to make the city a better place for its residents,” Collins said. “So, this is a huge example of that.”

Using two underground detention basins, which capture and release stormwater into the city’s combined sewer system, the new Southern Bus Depot Stormwater Retrofit project manages 7.8 “green acres” of stormwater – a measurement of the amount of rainwater in proportion to impervious surface. 

The underground bioretention basins work to reduce pollutants while providing flood control.

Collins says the new system also eliminates stormwater fees from that property, which cost approximately $46,000 annually. 

“We have this opportunity to not only mitigate the stormwater that’s required of us through regulations but we want to go over and above,” Collins said.

The third component of the sustainability project features SEPTA’s pilot programming of  battery-electric buses, as 25 of the new vehicles now run along Routes 29 and 79, which all operate out of the Southern Depot. 

The new battery-electric buses feature Wifi, USB ports at each passenger seat, non-glare uniform interior LED lighting, full “all-season” climate control and back windows. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

The 29, which runs on Tasker and Morris streets from Pier 70 to 33rd and Dickinson streets, and the 79, which runs on Snyder Avenue from the Columbus Commons to 29th Street, have historically been considered as environmentally friendly because both routes were once trackless trolley.

“When this technology – electric buses – became ready for prime time and we were looking to pilot it – we thought 29 and 79 would be two great routes,” Collins said. 

According to SEPTA’s sustainability program, using electric buses as compared to hybrid buses will save 2,101,777 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-e), which amounts to taking 207 cars off the road for a year.

Integrated with 38 trackless trolleys in North and Northeast Philadelphia, the addition of more than two dozen battery-electric buses in South Philadelphia has led SEPTA to now have the largest zero-emission bus fleet on the east coast. 

“I think one of the most important things that a resident in the city of Philadelphia can do to support sustainability in general, but SEPTA’s sustainability, is use public transportation,” Collins said. “Because a full bus is a lot more sustainable than an empty bus. The more people that we’re carrying, the more sustainable that we are as an organization, as a city.”

Manufactured by Proterra Inc., the 40-foot buses, which feature quieter operations than the diesel-run SEPTA vehicles, can carry close to 80 individuals and feature Wifi, USB ports at each passenger seat, non-glare uniform interior LED lighting, full “all-season” climate control and back windows. 

The 25 new buses charge overnight. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

The new fleet was partially funded with $2.6 million from the Federal Transit Administration grant under the “Low or No-Emission Program.” 

Looking ahead, Collins says SEPTA intends to implement similar projects across the city using the Southern Bus Depot as a paragon of sustainability for the rest of the city’s public transportation facilities.

“All of this stuff is happening in South Philly in a really old building for a community of people that probably don’t even know that a lot of this stuff is happening,” Collins said. “…We are learning so much from Southern (depot) and the benefits of the investments that we made and we’re using it as a model.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano