LA Metro’s Moving Beyond Sustainability Plan—Heather Repenning

VX News marks US Infrastructure Week and kicks off Earth Month with this interview with LA Metro's Heather Repenning, executive officer of Metro’s Department of Environmental Compliance and Sustainability, to offer her a platform to share her important work at the LA County transit agency. Repenning highlights Metro’s Moving Beyond Sustainability Plan for integrating sustainability into all aspects of decision-making and execution at Metro and efforts to ensure equitable and sustainable mobility choices for transit-dependent residents across LA County.

At the VX2021 “One Infrastructure” Webinar on January 26 led by StreetsLA GM Adel Hagekhalil, you spoke about LA Metro’s sustainability policies and the opportunities for integrating green and resilient infrastructure in LA County’s many transit corridors.  Elaborate on that and also on how Metro is incorporating sustainability into its current plans.

Let me talk a little bit about the global picture of sustainability and climate resilience at Metro. I think that we all know the importance of the transportation sector- which generates about 40% of greenhouse gases in California- for our ability to meet our climate targets.

Electrification is full steam ahead and it's exciting. At Metro, we are leading the nation in fleet electrification. We are on track to electrify all of our buses, that’s more than 2300, by 2030. It’s a huge investment; it's challenging and it's costly. But as much as electrification is exciting, it doesn't address the hardest part of reducing emissions which is getting people out of their cars and getting where they need to go in a different way. In particular, we have a lot of room to improve in reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips.

In California, we don’t just focus on electrification. We also have a metric known as vehicle miles traveled or VMT. It is increasing which means that, overall, greenhouse gas emissions from car trips are still increasing in spite of the growing numbers of EVs on the road. Until we face this challenge head on we are not going to be able to reduce emissions at the rate we need to in order to meet the State’s climate goals. Metro is trying to meet this moment by dramatically expanding its system through Measures R and M, investing in a better, more user friendly bus program, micromobility, bike share, first-last mile improvements, and also exploring pricing strategies.

To your question about green and resilient infrastructure along transit corridors, I would say that one of the things we need to do to get people out of cars is to make accessing public transit a safe and comfortable experience for riders. I come from a public works background and have done a lot of work on green infrastructure in particular, so of course I’m drawn to the work of providing people access to buses and trains through safe, shared streets, but also making sure that we have trees, shelters, and other things that transit users and pedestrians need, especially as temperatures go up.

How in practice does Metro effectively collaborate with other transportation & planning authorities—city planning departments, public works and local transportation directors—on the right allocation of uses on our “rights of way”? Mobility today appears no longer to be the only public priority… for many cities multi-benefit planning has become a priority. 

Metro has a built-in advantage to working with other agencies given the make-up of its Board – our 13 voting Board Directors represent the diverse county and help the agency work with each of its 89 local jurisdictions. But our region still has a huge challenge in how we make way for other modes of travel besides single-occupancy vehicles. Like much of the country, most of the roads in LA County prioritize moving cars. There does seem to be some evolution happening right now amongst policymakers from the new U.S. Transportation Secretary, to the California Transportation Commission, on down to the local level, and it feels like sustainability, equity and collaboration are really going to be given priority for funding. Ultimately we still need leadership at the community level in order to ensure that buses, trains and bikes get the space they need to move efficiently and safely.

It’s been interesting to see how during this pandemic all the rules of how we use space on our streets have sort of been turned on their heads. We’ve given outdoor dining entire lanes in some places- which opens space to explore doing more for bikes and buses.  Hopefully, we can also encourage large employers to adopt ongoing support for telecommuting to create a permanent reduction in congestion. I also think our politics have changed a lot too over the past couple of years, in a way that is untested. And unfortunately, wildfire season now seems to be a regular thing, so I think that air quality is going to be a bigger part of the conversation.

Step back and elaborate on your role with Metro and the policy challenges that you have been tasked with addressing.

My role at Metro is with the sustainability and environmental compliance group. Last year we released Moving Beyond Sustainability which is a ten-year plan setting goals for emissions and air quality, energy, climate adaptation, water, waste, and workforce.  It’s a huge undertaking to help move this program forward and to create buy in internally, but we’re not alone. The other agencies have their big ambitious goals that they are trying to meet so ideally our work will be a piece of a larger puzzle. We also benefit from having several Board members who are leaders on climate change.

We definitely have a lot of work to do in the emissions space. I think overall, we need to have a better handle on which investments have the best payoff when it comes to GHG reductions. I’m hoping that we can help define and promote a data-driven approach to transportation investments so that we can prioritize the programs and projects that do the most to reduce emissions and improve air quality, especially in our Equity Focus Communities. 

You recently moderated a VX2021 Advanced Clean Transportation Webinar panel with experts from the County's Chief Sustainability Office and like market leaders. Elaborate on the alignment and current collaborations between the sustainability plans of Los Angeles County and Metro.

The county's sustainability office has their own sustainability plan, and when we created our sustainability plan recently, we kept all of their targets in mind—as well as the City of LA’s Green New Deal—and tried to put something forward that was responsive and in alignment. 

We’ve been able to start doing some really interesting work with the County’s Safe Clean Water program (also known as Measure W). I see this program as an opportunity to access funding to make sure that our capital projects do as much as possible when it comes to water and climate resilience. I am also hoping that this program will be a way to fund green streets and urban canopy along high ridership transit corridors. Some of my Metro colleagues are participating in the County’s WHAM program- which is meant to bring folks together to coordinate planning for Measures W (water), H (homeless housing and services), A (parks), and M (transportation) with a focus on equity so that we can create multi-benefit projects and sustainable communities. 

Pivoting back to Metro’s needs and mission, the Biden Administration and Congress are now considering a new multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill. What’s on Metro’ wish list?  

Honestly I think most transit agencies are in need of basic operations support from DC right now – just to stay in business given the hit that ridership has taken during the pandemic. Beyond that, Metro should be well-positioned in any future infrastructure bill because, thanks to the generosity of voters, we already have a host of projects, at least partially funded with local dollars, that are well underway. When folks are looking for shovel-ready projects that will put people to work, Metro has a long list. 

From my office’s perspective, it would be lovely to see federal funds become available for fleet electrification. The charging infrastructure in particular is really expensive- in the ballpark of $1.5 billion for Metro. We also would want to make sure that Metro is not going to be penalized for federal clean energy funding just because we were an early adopter of CNG. The reality is that the work we are pioneering will make it possible for many agencies to switch from diesel directly to electricity, and we should be rewarded for leading the way.  

Elaborate on the potential for working collaborations between Metro and southern California utility planners. 

Metro is a huge user of electricity already due to our train system, but the type of power we are going to start needing for our buses is going to have a big impact on the utilities covering our service area. At the same time, utilities are trying to figure out how to clean their grid and ensure reliable transmission of renewable energy. So, there is a lot of potential for planning together.

One conversation we have been having with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power --which just announced its pathway to 100% renewable energy- is in the parts of the City where they are looking for more local generation and storage of renewable energy. We have gone through the process of making some of our facilities available to be considered as locations for solar and storage. We’ve also talked about vehicle-to-grid technology, which will allow vehicles to put power back into the grid in a way that is strategic for utilities. I think given the service demands put on Metro’s bus fleet it might make more sense for utilities to coordinate with school districts and other agencies where the vehicles have limited service hours. There is a ton of work to do in this space and it benefits our own sustainability goals if we can help utilities get to a clean grid as quickly as possible.

Metro has just contracted with Clean Energy Fuels Corporation to fuel what is the nation's largest transit bus fleet. How does it advance Metro’s mission and goals? 

As I mentioned, Metro is leading the nation in moving to a zero-emissions bus fleet. But we are also proud to be using the cleanest possible transition fuel which is renewable natural gas. RNG is generated by using things that are traditionally a burden, like landfills, food waste, and wastewater, and recycling these products into something that we can use to create power.

Are there other like announcements and/ or contractual agreements that have taken place over the last year that merit our readers attention? 

I think the last year has just been about staying afloat. Metro has fared relatively well compared to other big US agencies because of Measure M and also because we saw less severe reductions in our ridership given how many of our core riders are essential workers who rely on our system.

But in the middle of the pandemic our CEO Phil Washington made a major announcement about moving towards a fareless system. To hear him explain it, given the relatively small percentage of our overall revenues that the farebox produces, it may be better to focus on the big picture of making it easier for folks to use our system- especially since we have the lowest income ridership in the country- than to spend resources collecting fares. This was before Biden was elected, so now that we have seen this new administration’s recovery package, with a potential infrastructure package coming behind it, this concept of a fareless system seems both more visionary and more achievable.

Lastly, VX News recently interviewed Assembly Transportation Chair Laura Friedman, in which she indicated (before the Biden Administration signaled an interest in increasing funding for HSR)  a preference to forego electrification of the Central Valley High Speed Rail, in order to reallocate funds to instead improve the connectivity of regional light rail and urban centers. What is Metro’s position on HSR, in light of current regional plans to bring HSR into Union Station?

First of all, I think that Assemblymember Laura Friedman is an incredible person to be leading the challenging work ahead of us on transportation, HSR, and on climate change.

For Metro, having high speed rail connected to our system via Union Station is a potential game changer. But from the perspective of what it’s going to take to meet our climate targets, it’s not great that policy leaders have to choose between electrification and connection to a system that serves more than 10 million people in Southern California. California is the fifth largest economy in the world and we should be able to get people across the state quickly by train, and we should be able to do so using zero emissions technology, generating local jobs. That’s the ideal anyway. But given the reality of finite resources for HSR right now it would be a mistake to not create the kind of connectivity that leverages both the significant dollars we are spending on building our system in LA and the most populous region in the US.

"At Metro, we are leading the nation in fleet electrification...But as much as electrification is exciting, it doesn't address the hardest part of reducing emissions which is getting people out of their cars and getting where they need to go in a different way.—Heather Repenning