Graham Kilmer
MKE County

How Do You Calculate a Project’s Climate Impact?

County government has developed a formula to evaluate that for infrastructure projects.

By - Feb 8th, 2024 08:33 am
Solar installation, 1600 E. College Ave. Photo taken March 16th 2021 by Graham Kilmer.

Solar installation, 1600 E. College Ave. Photo taken March 16th 2021 by Graham Kilmer.

In August, County Executive David Crowley will receive a list of projects recommended for inclusion in next year’s budget. This happens every year. But this time, the projects will have been scored on their climate impact.

In early 2023, County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson sponsored legislation requesting the creation of a climate lens through which to view the county’s infrastructure spending. When the resolution, co-sponsored by Sup. Steven Shea, was first introduced Nicholson explained that she wanted climate considerations “front and center” when policymakers were considering spending. In 2024, the county budgeted approximately $113 million for infrastructure projects.

Last year, county officials began working out how projects could be evaluated for climate impact, including how they might cut the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and other benefits like government efficiency or public health. In January, an ad-hoc committee that reviews the county’s infrastructure needs signed off on the new rubric for climate evaluation.

The 2025 budget will be the first time this committee, called the Capital Improvements Committee, specifically evaluates projects for their climate impact.

Gordie Bennett, director of the office of sustainability, said the new climate criteria were developed using much of the work officials have put into the county’s Climate Action Plan. Officials are still engaged in a multi-year planning project to create a long-term strategy for the county to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a 45% reduction from emissions levels by 2030.

The new criteria will account for approximately 6.4% of all the measures by which the county considers a project. By comparison, safety considerations represent 21.3% and racial equity 10.6%

Electric Bus Problems Hang Over Climate Considerations

While the new climate criteria were being considered in January, the Milwaukee County Transit System‘s bumpy experience with Battery Electric Buses (BEB) was used as an object lesson in green technology that may not be ready for mass implementation and the potential for unanticipated costs during transition.

MCTS began operating BEBs in June along the new Connect 1 bus rapid transit service, which runs east and west between downtown Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. One needed a new battery within the first month, and by August, MCTS was sending their BEBs away to the manufacturer, NovaBus, for a recall to have the batteries replaced.

Donna Brown-Martin, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation, warned members of the ad-hoc infrastructure committee that some of the technology underpinning transitions to green or carbon-reducing infrastructure remains unproven. Additionally, she noted, these projects will likely come with unanticipated costs.

Using the example of electric buses, Brown-Martin explained that the transit system could not reliably purchase more BEBs right now because the manufacturers currently in the market are either in bankruptcy or selling buses and technology that she doesn’t trust. And when the county installs new electric infrastructure that draws a lot of power, the utilities charge the county to run new, larger gauge cable into county facilities, Brown-Martin said, “and those costs are significant.”

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2 thoughts on “MKE County: How Do You Calculate a Project’s Climate Impact?”

  1. says:

    Since politics began, there have been hidden costs–costs of improvements have upon our natural world–that have been hidden from voters. For the first time, these costs upon our climate, which affects our natural world, are being calculated. This is a great step forward. Only when projects are being considered based upon the full cost, can it be fairly decided and undertaken.

  2. says:

    This reporter continues to quote County DOT officials claiming battery electric buses are not feasible with ZERO effort to fact check the claim. If there are no vendors selling buses, then why are Madison and Racine able to convert to battery electric buses? Has the reporter bothered to call officials from those cities to find out what they say about the availability and feasibility of battery electric buses in our climate?

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