April 27, 2017: Ill-fated solid waste facility should not shackle our future

April 27, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting should act favorably on the Pay as You Throw article that will be considered in May. That article would allow the Board of Selectmen to consider PAYT when Belmont negotiates a new solid waste contract this coming fall, notwithstanding a 1990 over-ride regarding solid waste. Arguments that the 1990 vote created a “social contract” under which Belmont residents would never need pay for trash collection should be rejected.

The tale of the 1990 over-ride actually began years before, when Belmont yielded to pressure placed on Massachusetts communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. According to a 2001 Harvard Business School analysis: “in the late 1970s and early 1980s Massachusetts officials leaned hard on many communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. . .[The state] wielded heavy sticks, notably the threat to close down existing landfills. Some municipalities resisted this pressure, but almost two dozen—representing 500,000 Massachusetts residents—felt they could not.” Belmont was one of 23 communities that joined the North East Solid Waste Committee.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The biggest problem arose when the state stopped pressuring local governments to close their landfills. Landfills that were expected to close instead continued to operate. Since the NESWC contract called for a Guaranteed Annual Tonnage to be provided to the incinerator, when large communities such as Lawrence and Lowell decided not to participate, the 23 smaller communities (including Belmont) were required either to provide equivalent substitute tonnage for the trash that had been expected from the large communities or to pay for that tonnage anyway.

The adverse impacts on Belmont were extraordinary. The 1985 Warrant Committee report to Town Meeting noted that the “costs of disposal will rise to about $29 a ton from $16 during the current fiscal year.” In 1986, the WC reported that the “costs of collection and hauling will be about $56 a ton.” In 1987, the WC told TM that the budget for solid waste was “almost 70 percent above the amount voted [the previous year]. . .”

The cost increases simply didn’t slow down. A subsequent investigation of NESWC by the Massachusetts Inspector General reported in 1997: “NESWC communities currently pay approximately $95 per ton for waste disposal.” In short, NESWC created a financial crisis for Belmont: a 600% increase in trash collection and disposal costs (from $16/ton to $95/ton) in just over ten years (1985 to 1997). The Inspector General’s report noted that “rapid increases in the cost of waste disposal meant that other budgetary items necessarily had to get trimmed.”

Because of these budgetary pressures, Belmont swallowed hard and passed a 1990 over-ride devoted to solid waste. This was not based on any commitment that residents would “never have to pay for trash collection and disposal,” but rather because Belmont was drowning in NESWC debt that threatened the town’s schools as well as its police, fire and other community services.

The financial debacle associated with the NESWC trash incinerator no longer burdens our community. Today, moving to PAYT would not only be environmentally friendly, but would save the town close to a million dollars over five years. To allow the NESWC disaster to prevent Belmont from even considering a contemporary trash collection and disposal scheme would be to allow that NESWC incinerator to impose continuing environmental and economic harms on Belmont.

Belmont suffered for years because of the ill-fated NESWC facility. It should not, today, be allowed to shackle us in the future to both our financial and environmental detriment. In negotiating a new solid waste contract this year, the BOS should be authorized to at least consider PAYT.

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February 23, 2017: Protests are fine, but how do we spend our own money?

February 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Much ado has been made about the devastating adverse impacts that President Trump’s decisions will have on the environment.  The President seeks to undo clean air and water regulations, dismantle clean energy programs, and promote environmentally destructive energy production and transportation facilities.  People are literally marching in the streets in protest.  In addition to this political response, however, one necessary local response to these policies is to pay even closer attention to how we handle our personal pocketbooks.

One thing we know in Belmont is that the biggest potential for a reduction in local Greenhouse Gas emissions lies in the transportation sector. According to the GHG Inventory prepared for Belmont last spring, “emissions from vehicles (mainly residential) are estimated to have increased 6% from 2007 to 2014.”  Indeed, today, transportation emissions make up the biggest source of GHG emissions in our community.

Reducing auto emissions is an effective tool to address global climate change. Belmont’s GHG Inventory stated, long before Trump was elected President, that “the largest opportunities for [GHG] reductions lie in the choices made when residents replace vehicles and heating systems.”  According to the Inventory, “the choice of an efficient vehicle is probably the single most important and effective action residents of Belmont can take for reducing emissions.” These personal choices on vehicles are made every day.  The GHG Inventory estimated that 1600 new vehicles are purchased every year by Belmont residents.  Through such purchases, 20% of Belmont’s existing vehicle stock is replaced each year.

The purchase (or lease) of electric vehicles is particularly sensible for Belmont residents.  Belmont’s automobile travel of 23.5 miles per day readily lends itself to the use of EVs, In fact, the town’s GHG Inventory reports, “vehicles in Belmont are driven substantially [fewer] miles per day on average than the state-wide average.” In addition, both the state and federal governments are putting their proverbial “thumb on the scale” to promote EVs by offering substantial rebates ($7500 Federal, $2500 MA). Possible increases in electricity use are offset by savings in fuel consumption.  EV drivers can expect to pay the equivalent of $1.40 to $1.65 per gallon of gas.  Discounts from Belmont Light also help offset any increase in electricity costs.

Mark Twain once said that it is not the things we don’t know that so frequently cause disasters. It is the things we do know, but aren’t true. There are considerable misconceptions about EVs.  People worry that EVs are too small, too light, or don’t go very far. As Belmont residents make choices about their vehicle purchases this year, the Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to provide sound information. Before you decide that EVs are “hard to drive,” for example, Belmont residents should visit one of the Belmont Drives Electric events to test drive a vehicle. You may well decide that an EV is not for you.  But, you may also decide that what you had “heard” or “thought you knew” about EVs is just plain wrong, and that an EV purchase would be appropriate to meet your household’s needs.

Taking time to learn about EVs is something that every Belmont car buyer owes both to themselves and to their community.  The Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to make that process of self-education easier.  It is an opportunity that should not be missed. And, when all is said and done, while marching to protest President Trump’s environmental decisionmaking may be necessary and appropriate, the cumulative impact of the car purchasing decisions that individual Belmont residents make in their ordinary course of living should also be recognized and acted upon in our continuing local efforts to clean up the environment.

September 22, 2016: Unbundled parking: Fewer cars from Cushing Village

September 22, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the final up-or-down decision grows near on whether the proposed Cushing Village development will move forward, it is important to consider not only “whether” the development will proceed, but to consider, also, “how” it will proceed.  In a prior Guest Opinion in the Citizen-Herald, for example, Cushing Village developer Chris Starr committed that “residential parking will be ‘unbundled’ from their monthly apartment rent, which will encourage residents to use the nearby public transit and go car-free if they prefer.”  That commitment should be carried forward by the new developers.

One way to manage parking, and thus help control the automobile traffic generated by new developments such as Cushing Village, is to “unbundle” the parking from the living units, such as was proposed by Chris Starr.  According to the Transport Policy Institute at Victoria University, “optimal parking supply is the amount that motorists would purchase if they paid all costs directly and had good parking and transport options.”

“Unbundling means that parking is rented or sold separately,” the Institute explains, “rather than automatically included with building space.”  Rather than rent an apartment with two parking spaces for $2,000 per month, in other words, the apartment is rented for $1,700, with each parking space rented separately for $150 per month.  In this way, residents of the building pay only for the parking they need.  For a development such as Cushing Village, which sits directly on a bus line to significant public transportation options (e.g., the T at Harvard Square, the train in Waverley Square), persons who choose to rely on public transit in lieu of a car are not forced to pay for parking spaces that they choose not to use.  In contrast, people who choose to rely on automobiles are called upon to pay the full cost of parking those automobiles.

The primary community benefit of unbundling the rent and/or sale of parking spaces from the underlying living unit is that the process attracts individuals who choose not to use cars as their mode of transportation.  The ready access to shared automobiles, such as Zip Cars, which will be located at Cushing Village, provides that transportation option when needed.

Unbundling has an unquestioned impact on reducing automobiles in new developments. In a 2013 “review of parking standards” in the Concord (MA) zoning code, Concord was told that “charging separately for parking is the single most effective strategy to encourage households to own fewer cars, and rely more on walking, cycling and transit.”  Unbundling residential parking, Concord was told, “can significantly reduce household vehicle ownership and parking demand.”

Concord was told that the process of unbundling parking makes “the cost of providing parking clear to residential and commercial tenants and buyers, and [helps] them make more informed decisions about their transportation needs.” Typically, the Concord zoning study found, “unbundled parking reduces parking demand by 10 – 30%.” One impact of this reduced parking demand is either that building size can be reduced or that developers can “build less parking and more of the functional building space (whether that is living units, commercial space or office space).”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency of which Belmont is a member, agrees. According to MAPC, unbundled parking “is not only more equitable, but can also reduce the total amount of parking required for the building. . .Communities should encourage developers to unbundle the price of parking. . .”

As Cushing Village moves forward under the guidance of a new developer, Belmont would be well-served if Toll Brothers makes clear its commitment to follow-through on previously-announced plans to unbundle the pricing of parking and building space.

July 21, 2016: Community Path Lessons from the Minuteman Trail

Belmont Citizen-Herald: July 21, 2016

My wife and I really aren’t bicyclists.  We had let our bikes gather dust in the garage for several years, victims of the “tomorrow-I’ll-have-more-time” syndrome.  Unfortunately, as Annie says, “tomorrow is always a day away.”

But, having passed the milestone of “turning 60” awhile back, and now moving ever so surely toward “comfortably in our 60s,” this summer, in a nod toward keeping fit, we pulled our bikes down off their hooks, had them tuned-up at Wheelworks, and declared ourselves ready to explore the western ‘burbs and beyond.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, we headed down the Goden Street hill –not worrying, yet, about how we would get back up it—glided around the High School parking lot, and were surprised at how quickly we reached Alewife using the path along the train tracks.  We then hung a left and headed out toward Lexington on the Minuteman Trail.

That’s when the day’s education began.  Our ride on this warm summer day was an experiential lesson, a class on the difference between a “bike path” and a “community path.”

For our voyage, we intentionally waited until late afternoon, thinking that we might perhaps miss the bulk of the day’s traffic.  But the users of the Minuteman Trail surpassed all expectations. There were walkers galore, ranging from young adults to the aged.  Single walkers, couples, families with young children aplenty.

Some groups of people ambled, clearly enjoying each other’s company; other folks were plugged into their headphones, removed from the world around them.

People traveled on wheels as well.  Some were pushed in strollers, while others glided on blades.  One little boy pulled a classic little red wagon, though I couldn’t tell whether his passenger was a Teddy Bear or a puppy. A young girl with training wheels pedaled furiously to keep up with her parents.

Not everyone was exceedingly careful. Just as I was getting comfortable in looking up and around, in addition to straight ahead, as I plodded along, two 10-year olds raced by, their attention focused exclusively on some finish line existing only in their imaginations.

There were the serious bikers, who view their cycles as a mode of transportation, while there were others, like us, who view their cycles as a mode of exercise.

I’ve followed the community path debate in Belmont in recent years. I’ve attended the meetings, studied the maps, read the reports.  But, as my wife and I rode along that day, it struck me that I was experiencing exactly what Belmont’s community path advocates have been seeking to communicate for years.  We weren’t simply on a bike path.  We were on a path that promoted community cohesion and shared community experiences.

In my mind, I tried to lift that trail out of the woods through Arlington and Lexington, and place it along Concord Ave. in Belmont.  I couldn’t make it happen. I just couldn’t place someone pushing their stroller down that busy thoroughfare. I couldn’t see a dad worrying about his young daughter’s biking skills on a quality-time jaunt while the cars whizz by.  I could see two tweens obliviously darting their bikes into traffic as they pass the “old guy” poking along as he rode.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t envision that path, with the community members we were passing, located along Concord Avenue.

If you don’t understand why siting part of Belmont’s community path along Concord Ave. is unsatisfactory, I invite you to spend a few hours some summer afternoon traversing the Minuteman Trail starting at Alewife.  You, too, will experience the meaning of a true community path and what it would mean to Belmont.

June 23, 2016: Making progress on carbon reduction, more needed

Belmont Citizen-Herald: June 23, 2016

In 2009, Belmont’s Town Meeting adopted a climate action policy committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the town by 80% by the year 2050.  The first update on Belmont’s GHG emissions was just released. The town is making progress, but not nearly fast enough to meet the goals established by Town Meeting.

The recent GHG inventory shows that while local government policies and programs can play a role in driving major change in emissions reductions, consumer purchasing decisions are even more important.  Over the past six years, three major initiatives of the town’s Energy Committee have been to successfully promote adoption of an energy efficient building code in Belmont; to lead the most successful home weatherization program (Better Homes Belmont) in the commonwealth; and to lead the most successful community solarization program  (Belmont Goes Solar) in the commonwealth,  Still, Belmont lags behind where it needs to be.

According to the recent GHG inventory, “total emissions from electricity, transportation, and heating fuels are estimated to have declined by 5% from 2007 to 2014.  This is promising, though not as large a decrease as needed to be on track for achieving Belmont’s long-term goals.” The major sources of carbon dioxide emissions in Belmont are transportation (36%), electricity (29%), natural gas (21%) and fuel oil (14%).

Overall electricity usage in Belmont was “virtually identical” in 2014 to the level in 2007.  “Electricity usage stayed essentially flat” for both residential and non-residential customers, the inventory said.  While that result “may seem disappointing,” the report said, in prior years, electricity usage in Belmont had been increasing.  “Stabilization of consumption is at least a step in the right direction.”

Where the town lost ground is with transportation.  Emissions from vehicles in Belmont increased from 2007 to 2014, the GHG inventory found.  This was due largely to an increase (13%) in the number of vehicles registered in Belmont.  However, the inventory continued, “the increase in emissions due to the number of vehicles was partially offset by likely improvements in vehicle fuel efficiencies.”  Since 2007, the inventory said, there has been a substantial increase in average fuel economy for cars (from roughly 23 mpg in 2007 to roughly 28 mpg in 2014).  In addition, the inventory found, vehicles in Belmont are slightly more fuel-efficient than the state average.

Offsetting this increased fuel economy, however, is the fact that emissions from gasoline production have been increasing in recent years.  More than one-third of the emissions from the use of gasoline comes not from the tailpipe, but rather from the gasoline’s production. “The trend toward ‘dirtier’ gasoline will reduce the overall positive climate effects of increasing fuel efficiency,” the inventory warned.

“The largest areas for potential improvement through the actions of Belmont residents are afforded by the choices made when replacing vehicles and heating systems,” according to the GHG inventory.  “In both cases, even relying on currently available technology, large-scale reductions are possible.”

“Given the fact that transportation-related emissions are the single largest category of emissions in Belmont, and the very wide range of vehicle efficiencies, with electric vehicles currently available that produce as little as a fifth of the emissions per mile traveled as the least efficient gasoline vehicle, the choice of an efficient vehicle is probably the single most important and effective action residents of Belmont can take for reducing emissions.”

Making progress toward reducing carbon emissions is the bottom line in acting locally to address the global challenge of climate change.  Understanding where we are, and what steps we can each individually take to make the most difference, is critical in deciding what local actions to pursue.

March 24, 2016: Gas pipes leak; town has no control

Belmont Citizen-Herald: March 24, 2016

If you ask me, the whole situation stinks.  At the end of 2015, there were 74 leaks in the natural gas pipes serving Belmont residents.  Two of those leaks, one on Fletcher Road and the other on Marsh Street, were first reported to National Grid in the summer of 1996.

Now, I realize that not all gas leaks are equal.  State law categorizes such leaks into three “classes.”  Class 1 leaks are those considered to be an “existing or probable hazard to person or property.”  As the Home Energy Efficiency Team, a Massachusetts environmental organization, notes, “leaks that are not considered a ‘probable future hazard’ don’t have to be fixed, ever.”

National Grid finds itself spending more of its time and money meeting crises than getting ahead of the problem.  On March 1st of this year, National Grid filed its annual report on gas leaks with the state Department of Public Utilities. Two-thirds of the 61 leaks National Grid repaired in Belmont in 2015 were Class 1 leaks.  Nearly all of these leaks the company repaired, including all 40 of the hazardous ones, it didn’t even know existed going into the year.  In contrast, 52 of the continuing leaks National Grid deemed to be non-hazardous remained unaddressed in 2015, simply going into the company’s data base of things to track and report. In addition, 22 new “non-hazardous” leaks were identified in Belmont in 2015.

The town of Belmont has little or no control over how quickly, if at all, National Grid fixes gas leaks throughout the community.  In a meeting with representatives of Belmont’s Mothers Out Front organization in January, Belmont’s Department of Public Works staff said that the town has nothing to do with when or whether or in what priority gas leaks are fixed by National Grid.  DPW’s sole role is to issue “street opening permits” when someone digs in a public street.  Their job is to ensure that the road is in the same condition after the digging as it was before the digging. In addition, when the town excavates a street, the underlying pipelines are fixed or replaced.

Quite aside from existing leaks, one problem facing Belmont is the prevalence of “leak prone” pipelines.  More than half of the 85 miles of natural gas pipeline underlying Belmont’s streets are prone to leaks, either due to the age of the pipe or due to the material from which the pipes are made.

Apart from whether a gas leak is immediately dangerous to the public, gas leaks harm the environment.  According to HEET, “natural gas is primarily made of methane, a remarkably potent greenhouse gas that is 85 times more destructive to the climate than carbon dioxide over its first 20 years.” HEET says that the greenhouse gas emissions from gas leaks in Massachusetts are “roughly equivalent to the emissions of all the state’s businesses and factories combined. It is easier to fix a majority of these leaks than to persuade most factories and businesses to stop emitting.”

“To add insult to injury,” HEET says, “the utilities don’t pay for the wasted gas, but instead pass the cost onto ratepayers by factoring the lost gas into the price we pay. . .”

HEET is now working with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning commission of which Belmont is a part, to identify “best practices” of local governments to help control the region’s natural gas leaks. So far, Belmont has declined to participate in that MAPC effort.  Belmont residents should be concerned, if not because of the immediate local dangers, because of the broader environmental consequences of the failure to repair.

January 14, 2016: Belmont Goes Solar: A Matter of Perspective

Belmont Citizen-Herald: January 14, 2016

Now, tell me truly. Did you think the dress was white and gold or was that dress blue and black? This difference in perception captured the imagination of the Internet in 2015.

The Belmont Goes Solar campaign now unfolding in town poses a similar question of perspective. Is the installation of solar panels on your roof best viewed as a way to prevent global climate change; is it best viewed as a way to earn a good return on your money; or is it best viewed as a way to minimize your long-term electricity bill?

In reality, the answer to that question should have little impact on whether you participate in Belmont Goes Solar. Any one of those answers presents a reason unto itself to avail yourself of the benefits of Belmont Goes Solar.

Let me fully disclose here. When the Board of Selectmen decided last fall that they wished to have a Belmont Goes Solar campaign in town, they asked the Town’s Energy Committee to organize it. As co-chair of the Energy Committee, I have also been chairing the group of volunteers that has organized Belmont Goes Solar and is promoting it. Having said that, let me tell you why I think that campaign is not only a good idea, but a great idea.

Ask yourself the following questions. Do you believe that, as the federal government imposes stricter clean air quality standards over the next 20 years, electricity will become cheaper or more expensive? If you respond “more expensive,” you should be interested in installing solar panels. The electricity produced by those panels is yours. That electricity will not be subject to any future price increases due to environmental clean-up costs. As electricity prices increase to pay for cleaner electricity, the electricity produced by your solar panels will be unaffected.

Are you earning 14% on your investments today? My wife and I surely are not. If you install solar panels today, taking advantage of state and federal tax credits, in addition to the time-limited price discount offered through Belmont Goes Solar, you will experience a payback of between six and seven years. The “payback period” is the number of years over which the savings generated by your panels exceeds the amount you spent on them; after that, it’s all profit. A seven year payback equals a 14% return on your investment. No other safe place exists today where you can earn that return.

Do you believe the earth’s climate is changing due to the pollution humankind dumps into the air? If you have noticed that the incidence of severe weather (think 2015 snow storms) has increased, or that the Western U.S. has been hammered with drought, or that the Arctic ice cap is melting, you should be interested in installing solar panels through Belmont Goes Solar.

The point is, however, that you need not believe in all of these. It’s a matter of perspective. Whether or not you believe in global climate change, Belmont Goes Solar will maximize your investment returns. Whether or not you have money tucked away in stocks and bonds, Belmont Goes Solar will help you make your own individual contribution to prevent catastrophic global climate change.

Belmont Goes Solar has its next “meet the installer” gathering at the Beech Street Center on the afternoon of Saturday, January 23, 2016. Whether you saw a white/gold dress or a blue/black dress, you should be there. Whether you want long-term financial security or want long-term security for the earth’s climate, you should be there. Whether you are fully committed to solar or merely curious, you should attend.