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Greening the city

Chickens ‘R Us?

Chickens were the main topic in the waning minutes of Monday evening’s City Council meeting. There’s been public interest in allowing backyard poultry-keeping (mostly for eggs — and in support of sustainability, the locavore lifestyle, and connecting kids with “nature”). Oak Ridge’s zoning ordinance doesn’t allow “livestock” (including fowl) except in the RG-1 zone, so poultry-keeping is illegal unless we change the ordinance. The Planning Commission is taking up the issue — and Charlie Hensley says it’s on their policy work session agenda for this Thursday, February 11 (5:30 pm in the Municipal Building Training Room).

Urban chickens (and other fowl) are “in” these days, and many jurisdictions have been changing their zoning laws to allow them (for example, here’s a news story from last year on Durham, North Carolina, legalizing backyard chickens).

Most prospective chicken-keepers suggest that the ordinance should allow no more than 4 to 6 chickens per household — and almost everyone seems to agree on no roosters (many people enjoy hearing “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but there are many more who don’t). One poultry proponent said in an e-mail that “What matters is … that the conditions are sanitary and that it does not stink, and it is not an eyesore.” The Planning Commission will also have to think about whether an ordinance would need to include specifications on things like setbacks from property lines, and whether the city can and should enact requirements on how these birds are housed. The Planning Commission can make a recommendation to City Council, and any change in the ordinance would require City Council action.

I expect that people interested in keeping chickens (or turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, geese, pheasants, or quail) will be at Thursday’s meeting — and will be communicating their views to Community Development directory Kathryn Baldwin, Planning Commission members, and City Council. To help in reaching good decisions, we also need to hear the concerns of people who don’t like the idea — and I expect that we’ll hear from them, too.  As issues go, this one should be an amusing one to discuss — already I’m hearing good stories about people’s personal experiences with fowl.

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An educational wetland for Linden School — with help from the RecycleBank

Angie Palau is amazing! Just a couple of months ago, she was instrumental in getting a RecycleBank “Green Schools” grant for a new outdoor amphitheater for Linden Elementary School. Now she’s come through a second time with a grant for an “educational wetland” at Linden.

To claim the $5000 grant for the wetland, RecycleBank members need to donate points. 100 RecycleBank points equals $10. Linden already received the 50,000 points needed for the amphitheater, but it is still possible for RecycleBank members to contribute to the wetland project at this link.

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Bicycle-Pedestrian Forum, January 5, 2010, 6 pm

The Oak Ridge city staff and and the Knoxville Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) have been working quietly to get started on a process to update the city’s pedestrian and bicycle plans. City Council found out earlier this week that an advisory committee had been formed and several meetings have been held. Currently the city has a sidewalk plan for the center city and a greenways master plan, but neither of these is recent, and some sort of comprehensive pedestrian-bike plan is needed to qualify for certain grants.

A forum for public input will be held on January 5 at the Civic Center A/B Room. Here’s a classy announcement of the forum that’s being distributed.

The

Bicycle Pedestrian Technical Advisory Committee Invites

You to a Public Forum

January 5th, 2010 @ 6:00 p.m.

Oak Ridge Civic Center A/B Room

The City of Oak Ridge, the Bicycle Pedestrian Technical Advisory Committee, and the Transportation Planning Organization have joined forces to prepare a Bicycle Pedestrian Master Plan for the City of Oak Ridge.  During the first public forum we will be seeking input for establishing policies, programs, and priorities for the plan.  If you have any questions you may contact the Community Development Department at (865) 425-3531 or the Parks and Recreation Department at (865) 425-3450.  We look forward to seeing you there.

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It’s not your imagination — utility rates have gone up

An e-mail from a resident reminds me that there’s lots of public discussion about tax rates, but little public/media attention when city electric, water, and wastewater rates go up — even though most of us pay more for city utilities than we do for city property taxes.

I think the resident was hoping that there was some terrible mistake in his bill when he wrote that since 2006 “my electric and sewage price per unit has increased by 25% and my water price per unit has increased by 50%.” His estimates of the rate increase are a bit high, probably because there are minimum charges built into each of those bills (currently $25 per month for water and wastewater and $7.70 for electric) that mean you can’t calculate the unit price by dividing your total bill for the month by your usage for the month. However,  the reality is that the rates have gone up — a lot.

Having dug into the rate increases to respond to this citizen, I’m going to document the information here.

The increases are due in large part to the fact that the costs of many of the items that are required to deliver electricity, water and wastewater service (including natural gas, coal, electrical transformers, and electric cable) have gone up much faster than the consumer price index. The city is simply passing the costs along to us customers. Additionally, though, a portion of the increases is due to decisions the city made several years ago to subsidize part of the cost of extending utility service to remote locations such as Rarity Ridge.

Electric rates have changed several times during the last few years, almost entirely due to changes in TVA’s charges for electricity sold to the city. (There also have been some modest increases by the city.) TVA rate increases have resulted mostly from factors such as big increases in its costs for the fuel it uses to generate electricity (mostly coal) and reduced hydroelectric generation due to drought. Fortunately, sometimes TVA makes downward adjustments in its rates. TVA adjusts its rates quarterly, and our rates change quarterly as a result. The most current Oak Ridge electric rates (from April) are on the web at this address. Those rates are lower than they were a few months ago.

Water rates have increased more than 40% since 2006. Those rate increases received final approval from City Council in May 2007  (the month before I was elected to Council), as documented here.
That increase was related to increased costs of delivering water, but a contributing factor was a big permanent drop in water use by Department of Energy facilities. The fixed costs of operation did not drop when DOE’s usage dropped, so the city now must to divide those costs across fewer gallons of water. (Also,  a provision of the city’s contract with DOE limited the percentage by which the city can increase DOE’s rates, meaning that the rest of us are paying more…)

Wastewater rates last increased in May 2008 (see documentation on the city website). I don’t recall the percentage increase, nor the specific reasons for it, but I know that the costs of energy are a big part of the cost of wastewater treatment, so energy price increases are likely to explain a big chunk of the increase.

What to do about this? Well, most of us could reduce our bills by conserving. At my house, we’ve seen our electric usage go down a surprising amount because of (1) replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescents, (2) getting rid of the old refrigerator that we kept as a second fridge for convenience  (for example, to hold “fresh” orange juice that we bought on sale), and (3) replacing our old chest freezer with a newer model that’s more efficient. Not only does that reduce our household bill, but if our society could significantly reduce its overall demand for energy, America would become less vulnerable to the price manipulation by the international oil cartel that causes energy prices to go up…

The widening of Hwy. 95 will help with future rates, as it will facilitate extension of water lines to westernmost Oak Ridge, which will in turn lower future costs of provding services there by eliminating the need to purchase water for Rarity Ridge. Economic development that adds more water users (ideally in areas already on the main water system) would help by adding more users to split those fixed costs.

Oak Ridge is now participating in TVA’s Generation Partners program that provides incentives for generating green electricity (something that should make a small contribution to reducing the influence of that international oil cartel).

And maybe we can find some ways to increase efficiencies in the utility systems.

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What people are redeeming their RecycleBank rewards points for

City Council received a report the other day on what Tennesseans (mostly in Oak Ridge and Jefferson City) redeemed their RecycleBank rewards points for in April.

My household hasn’t redeemed any of our RecycleBank rewards points yet, and it looks like we’re in the majority — fewer than 1500 rewards were redeemed in April (some by households that got more than one reward).

It was interesting to see what other people are choosing, as it gave me hints on the most attractive “deals.”

After seeing that Kashi products (free items such as granola, granola bars, and pilaf) are the number one choice (more than one in five of the rewards ordered were from this vendor), I looked into their reward offers and decided that we need to use some of our points to try some of their products.

Ruby Tuesday was the second most popular vendor, with some “buy one, get one free” coupons that appealed to nearly 200 Tennessee households during April. Food City was high on the list of popular vendors with their offer to exchange points for reusable cloth shopping bags.

It was great to see Oak Ridge ice cream destination Razzleberry’s in 5th place with a couple of yummy offers to entice people into their Jackson Square store.

Several other Oak Ridge businesses were popular choices, including Moondollars Cafe in Jackson Square, Firehouse Subs, and Venice Pizza. (Do I see a food theme here?)

ADDED June 10: Several people commented on this item over at Facebook. Tom Beehan said he had used some points for the Epicurean, Kelly Ayers said Moondollars has been getting some redemptions, and Cyndy Bailes says she has redeemed points for Moondollars and Naturally Gourmet. That food theme is going strong.

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Corrections and update on next phase of Hwy 95 widening

There’s some favorable news on the turnpike widening project.

City Council members learned last evening that the project was not included as a stimulus project, but is instead expected to be funded in TDOT’s FY 2010 work plan. That reduces the urgency a bit and gives TDOT a chance to improve the design.

Also, Southwood residents who spoke at the City Council meeting got the Council’s and staff’s attention, and I expect that things will be  done to determine the extent of the impacts on that subdivision and look for ways to mitigate the effects.

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The next phase of the Turnpike (Hwy 95) widening

People are griping (for example, on the new Sustain Oak Ridge Google group) about the Hwy 95 widening projects (the ongoing one from Illinois Ave. to Westover Drive and the next phase from Westover Drive to the Hwy 58 interchange).  These are not City of Oak Ridge projects, but are Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) projects (when complaining about public issues, it’s useful to know which unit of government you have an issue with), and it’s clear that the city has little influence over the way TDOT designs and builds its road projects. However, there has been strong city support for completing both of these projects, as they have been on the books for a very long time and they will not only eliminate some hazards but will also result in extending new utility lines (such as water mains) to the west end of the city, including Rarity Oaks, K-25, and Rarity Ridge.

One thing I’m concerned right now is the design for the next phase. This is a high-priority “shovel-ready” economic stimulus project, based on TDOT design work that was completed 9 years ago, so work  is slated to start soon.  TDOT’s design for this segment calls for a 48-foot wide median and a wide cleared right of way adjacent to both sides of the highway, and extensive cutting and filling to create an elevated roadway — think of an Interstate highway or the Pellissippi Parkway to imagine what is being planned. The grassed median alone will be wider than the entire current roadway. There will be no more trees to buffer between the Southwood subdivision and the highway or between the cleared properties in the Horizon Center and the highway (someone I know said “all trees that you can see from the road will be gone”) and the brick entryway to the Westwood subdivision probably will be removed.

If people don’t like this (or other details, such as the bike lane on the shoulder), public officials (both city and state) need to hear from you. They’ve heard from me asking for the design to be scaled back (apparently I was the only one to write a letter to TDOT after the public hearing on the design back in 2000,  and I’ve communicated more recently to TDOT as a City Council member) and a few others, and the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) recommended that City Council encourage TDOT to change their design from a “rural” to an “urban” design, but it appears to me that we critics are not being taken seriously.  If others agree with us, they need to speak up. (Opportunties to speak to Council include “appearance of citizens” at tonight’s Council meeting at 7 pm and the City Council Night Out at the Civic Center Tuesday evening from 6 to 8 pm.)

Here is some “material” on the subject, starting with the “guts” of a message I sent to TDOT’s regional manager in March of this year:

The principal concern that I have (and that I have heard from other residents) is that the overall width of the proposed design, including a 48-ft median and very wide clear zone on both sides of the travel surface, does not appear to be necessary (it greatly exceeds what exists on the higher-traffic segment of Hwy 58 west of the interchange) and will result in excessive environmental impacts, unnecessary construction and maintenance costs, and long-term detriment to efforts to maintain a “human-scale” community design that fosters pedestrian travel and community cohesion.

Environmental impact concerns include:
(1) loss of forest, riparian areas, and probably wetlands in the corridor
(2) noise impacts in residential areas adjacent to the corridor that are currently buffered from the roadway by vegetation that would be lost
(3) increased impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat in East Fork Poplar Creek due to reduction of vegetative buffer, loss of shade, and increased stormwater runoff
(4) possible impacts to flood storage and routing in East Fork Poplar Creek
(5) loss of aesthetic qualities.

From a cost perspective, I think it is clear that a wider swath increases the costs of both construction and ongoing maintenance. Reducing the width of this project to make it no wider than the segments immediately to the east and west (that is, the Hwy 95 segment currently under construction and the Hwy 58 segment from the Hwy 95 interchange west to the Clinch River) should free up some funds for other uses, both now and in the future.

There has also been community concern about potential impacts to the “checking station” structures (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) on either side of the roadway west of Westover Lane and to the nearby cemetery, but I understand that these features would be protected under TDOT’s design. Additionally, I told you that residents of the Westwood subdivision (entered at Wisconsin Avenue) are concerned that the project would require removal of the brick “gate” structures at the entrance to the subdivision, and you explained that this is unavoidable.

I recognize that funding priority for this project depends on the availability of an existing design, but I also know that even a “final” design often requires many changes, and that it is far less costly and time consuming to change an engineering design than it is to modify a road once it has been built. I believe that the requested modifications to reduce overall project width could be made within the context of the overall design (and thus without jeopardizing the overall project package). Additionally, I find it frustrating that I and other citizens registered these same concerns (orally and in writing) when a public meeting was held on this project about 8 years ago, but we did not receive responses to our expressions of concern — and the design remained essentially unchanged. I hope that changes can be made now to improve this project while reducing its costs.

* Here’s the text of TDOT’s April 8th reply to me:

I forwarded your e-mail to the Department’s Headquarter Design Office for assistance in addressing your concerns regarding the improvement of State Route 95 from State Route 58 to near Westover Drive in Oak Ridge.

As you are aware, a corridor and design public hearing was conducted on September 21, 2000. A review of the public hearing comments was made on December 27, 2000. Information based on the transcript reveals the hearing was attending by twenty-one people with six people making comments to the court reporter, two making written comments and one letter. You provided the letter and a comment to the court reporter.

The project has an approved environmental document. The project is designed in accordance with the Department’s standards and guidelines for a four lane divided facility using the typical sections as proposed in the approved Advance Planning Report. Comments from the public hearing and local government official regarding the addition of bicycle lanes and turn lanes have been incorporated into the present design. The facility will provide a bicycle lane on the roadway shoulders in each direction.

The typical section utilizing the 48 foot median is the normal typical used for a four lane divided facility. The 48 foot median is provided to allow for separation of opposing vehicles and allows sufficient area at median openings for safe vehicle storage making left turns and u-turns. The clear zone for this roadway is normal for this type of facility and utilizes the roadway shoulder for bicycle lanes. The roadway ditch provides for drainage.

The section of State Route 95 from Westover Drive to State Route 62 was designed with a narrower typical section because the area was established more urban and densely developed. The design also avoids the historic guard towers “checking stations” located near Westover Drive.

The Department strives to meet local concerns in the design of roadway projects while following the standards and guidelines established for safety of the motoring public. As the project progresses into the construction phase, opportunities to
improve safety and enhance aesthetics will always be considered.

* I don’t have an electronic copy of EQAB’s final letter to the City Council, but this draft is pretty close to what the board sent:

EQAB has recently learned that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) will provide funds for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to begin construction of Phase 2 of the State Route 95 Highway Improvement Project. As you may know Phase 2 covers the area from the West Guard Tower near Westover Drive to the SR 95/58 interchange. Members of EQAB reviewed the plans for this project. As a result of our review we would like to share some observations and concerns about this project.

The design for Phase 2 is based on a standard TDOT rural section design. As proposed it will have a cross section similar to an interstate-class highway with two traffic lanes in each direction, wide shoulders to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians, and a 48-foot depressed median for drainage. This design will result in clearing as much as 250-350 feet of right-of-way prior to construction. We are concerned that this construction will result in the destruction of a large area of natural habitat . At a time when City Council has tasked EQAB with developing a sustainability plan to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and help Oak Ridge become more environmentally friendly, construction of such a roadway is viewed by our board to be wasteful of natural resources and does not set a very good example of our commitment to a more sustainable future. The cost of such the proposed Phase 2 project is also wasteful of monetary resources at a time when these resources are becoming far more scarce. One reason we believe Phase 2 is wasteful is that Phases 1 and 3, which Phase 2 is sandwiched between, are both significantly more narrow urban sections. A rural section situated between two urban sections has limited benefit to the overall traffic flow patterns in this area.

Between 30-90 additional acres of forest would be needlessly razed to accommodate the rural highway section versus the urban section. At ~$30K per acre for unimproved buildable land in the West End, the value of this lost land, assuming the area abutting the highway does become completely residential, would be between $1 million and $3 million. This would be an absolute loss, since the commercial value of a deep median is essentially zero. If some of the land along the highway became light commercial instead of residential, the lost value could exceed $6 million.

The carbon sequestration value of the lost standing timber would be roughly $120-360K.

The broad shoulders and deep median buy us absolutely nothing, cost the City quite a bit in lost land etc., and cost the State quite a bit more in construction expense as well.

The members of EQAB are of the opinion that the Phase 2 design is incompatible with the City’s land use plans for the west end of Oak Ridge. With the development of Rarity Oaks and Horizon Center this area will not remain rural for very much longer. The build out of Rarity Oaks will ultimately make much of the area adjacent to the south side of the right-of-way residential. Similarly, the planned development at Horizon Center and Parcel ED-6 will bring a mix of commercial, industrial, and various density residential developments to the northern areas. We believe consideration of these factors necessitates an urban design to ensure compatibility with the future use of this area. An urban design would also be more compatible with non-motorized human users (i.e., bicyclists and pedestrians).

The original public meeting for the Phase 2 project was held almost nine years ago in September 2000. A lot of things have changed in the intervening years; unfortunately the design for Phase 2 has not been altered to account for or safely accommodate these changes.

Although we realize this project is being pursued on an accelerated schedule required by the ARRA to secure funding, we believe these concerns warrant a reexamination of the application of a standard design that since it’s first proposal has been superceded by changing conditions on the west end of town. The members of EQAB believe it would be to the benefit of the city, its residents, and future growth to explore the possibility of altering the proposed design to the proven, existing urban design that is more compatible with current conditions in the city.

To accept this project because the money is there to buy an elephant when we only need a horse will not help our community’s effort to establish itself as a sustainable community.

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Upcoming City Council business

I’ve already heard from one citizen with a question about an item on the April 13 City Council agenda (the agenda was posted Friday), so I guess it’s high time to discuss some of the business items. There’s a rezoning, action on the Chamber of Commerce contract, numerous bids and contracts including purchase of new police vehicles, “and much more.” Here are my musings about a few of these items (I’m interested in hearing what other residents think):

Rezoning request (updated April 7th)

The proposed rezoning is for a 1.25-acre lot at the corner of Tulsa Road and Tusculum Drive (there was a rezoning sign on the property, which is next to the entrance to the Burnham Woods subdivision, but I didn’t see the sign on Saturday). Requested rezoning is from R-4-B (multiple family residential) to O-2 (office district), to allow SMB Group (a construction contractor) to build a company office. (The company now has its office in the building at 100 Tulsa Road, at the corner of Tulsa and South Illinois Ave.) In addition to offices, permitted principal uses in the O-2 zone include multi-family dwellings, churches, hotels, day care facilities, and barber/beauty shops.

The Planning Commission recommended the rezoning by a unanimous vote at its March 26th meeting. The impact of the rezoning isn’t entirely clear. The R-4-B zone is supposed to be phased out, and uses in the new R-4 zone (which presumably would replace R-4-B) are pretty much the same as in the O-2 zone. The biggest difference I see are (1) in the R-4 zone buildings can occupy no more than 50% of the property, but the O-2 zone allows them to cover up to 80%, and (2) building plans in the O-2 zone require Planning Commission approval, but only staff review is required in the R-4 zone.

One possible concern is that the lot is mapped as being in the floodplain (of East Fork Poplar Creek and Gamble Valley Creek), but outside the floodway. Oak Ridge’s zoning ordinance does not restrict development in the portion of the floodplain outside the floodway (this is called the “floodway fringe”), as long as the ground floor is at least 1 ft about the calculated height of the 100-year flood. Fill already placed on the lot appears to have raised it above the flood level, so this is no longer a concern. The contamination (by mercury and PCBs released from the Y-12 Plant) in the floodplain of East Fork Poplar Creek also should not be a concern because the project should not disturb soils.

We’ll learn more about the rezoning proposal at the City Council agenda review work session on Monday, April 6 (6:30 pm in the City Services Center on Woodbury Lane, behind K-Mart), and there’ll be a public hearing at the April 13th City Council meeting (7 pm in the municipal building courtroom).

Chamber of Commerce contract

The City of Oak Ridge has a contract with the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce under which the Chamber (including the affiliated Oak Ridge Economic Partnership) provides economic development services to the City. The current contract is worth over $250,000 annually, including a $20,000 addition that the Council approved by a 5-2 vote in January of this year (Tom Hayes and I were the two who opposed this) to help fund an additional staff member to support the Chamber’s “Live Where You Work” residential recruitment program. The current contract expires June 30, 2009. It could be renewed for an additional year, but the Chamber wants to negotiate a new 3-year contract to begin July 1. City Manager Jim O’Connor is asking for Council authorization to negotiate with the Chamber to determine which option is in the City’s best interest.

Although it’s unlikely that meaningful changes will be made between now and July 1st, I hope to re-open meaningful dialog on the purpose and scope of the City’s relationship with the Chamber. Many residents question the City’s whole relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, asking whether it’s in the public interest to subsidize a chamber of commerce, which is fundamentally operated for the benefit of its membership. The cost of the contract and its benefit to the city are also perennial concerns. The rationale for the contractual relationship with the Chamber has to do with a concern that open-government laws would conflict with the need for confidentiality in business recruitment, as well as a perception that city government is inherently not very good at economic development. I think there is merit in this rationale, but it does appear to me that the City is essentially subsidizing the chamber without having a clear picture of what the public is getting for its money.

Much effort went into creating quantitative performance metrics for the current contract. It’s clear to me that it’s a lot of work for the Chamber to calculate and report those metrics (it turns out that the statistics they are asked to report are not readily available or easily determined), but it’s not clear that the metrics serve the intended purpose of ensuring that the City’s objectives are being met. I think the metrics need to be revisited.

I’d also like to see emphasis placed on helping local businesses (both new start-ups and long-existing companies) succeed, whether or not they are Chamber members. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many small businesses fail, but if local government resources are being spent on supporting business development, we should be helping existing small businesses (folks who have already invested in this city) avoid the types of mistakes that often lead to doom. Also, we should be helping local retail businesses promote themselves through measures like improved signage, special events, and “shop Oak Ridge” campaigns.

The “Live Where You Work” campaign is a great initiative (and long overdue), but I would have preferred to see it included in the current contract (which was supposed to include residential recruitment), instead of being added on as if it were an extra activity. I am waiting to hear whether the Chamber and City Manager want to enlarge the contract on a permanent basis, or if the $20,000 is a one-time thing (as Council was told back in January).

New police vehicles

Council is being asked to approve bid awards to spend $186,000 to buy six new Ford Crown Victorias (equipped for police use) and two Chevy Tahoes.

The Crown Victorias would replace some existing police cars (including some that have already broken down). Replacement of these cars is included in the City budget. I’m unclear on the purpose of the Chevy Tahoes, but the documentation indicates that the police would like to buy a third Tahoe if the city gets a federal grant. The bid prices for all of the vehicles are exceptionally low, so the City would get a good deal on the purchases.

It’s clear that our police vehicles need to be replaced on a regular basis, and that these bids are a pretty good deal, but I question the business-as-usual approach of continuing to buy new gas-guzzling Crown Victorias and SUVs. Two new directions that we should be exploring are (1) greater fuel efficiency and (2) take-home vehicles.

Fuel-efficient wheels for police. After experiencing last year’s high gas prices, and in face of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many police forces around the country and the world are testing more fuel-efficient cars for police use. This includes our local Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, which is trying out Dodge Chargers for patrol use. The Charger is a muscle car like the Crown Victoria, but it is rated as more fuel-efficient. Some other jurisdictions are testing smaller vehicles and hybrids for police use, including Chevy Impalas in Mobile, Alabama, the Pontiac Vibe in Cahokia, Illinois, and Toyota Camry hybrids in Salt Lake City, and even the Toyota Prius in Marion County, Florida. I know that police officers like their Crown Victoria, but if other vehicles meet the performance requirements of police work without using as much fuel, they can both save money and help reduce our impact on global climate and air quality.

Take-home vehicles. In a meeting some time back, I was surprised to hear Police Chief David Beams say that it would be possible to stretch the service life of some police cruisers by assigning them to police officers as take-home vehicles. Take-home vehicles would last longer because they would be used for only one shift (instead of being used around the clock). There’s plenty of support for this idea. In addition to saving on vehicle replacement costs, this could increase the police force’s ability to respond to unusual incidents, as officers called in from home could respond quickly. Only officers who live in Oak Ridge city limits should be eligible to take vehicles home, they should be used only to travel to and from work, and a police officer in a vehicle would have to be required to respond to any incidents he or she observes while in the vehicle. For those who qualified, a take-home car could become an added fringe benefit — this would even provide a tangible incentive for our men and women in blue to live inside the city. A take-home program wouldn’t eliminate the need to replace six cars this year, but it might be worth trying out on a small scale to see if it’s truly beneficial.

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Turning off lights isn’t as easy as it looks

Michael Silence has a comment in today’s News Sentinel that (contrary to his intention) helps to underline just how difficult it can be for governments to make meaningful reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. He says that it would be silly for the state to require vending machines on state property to either use energy-efficient lights for advertising or have the advertising lights removed, because he figures that business owners should be removing those lights to save money. It’s not that simple!

I’m pleased and proud to be able to say that the City of Oak Ridge has removed the advertising lighting from vending machines (they kept the lighting that helps people use the machine, but removed the lights that only illuminate a soft drink company’s name) after TVA recommended this as a way to save energy and costs. TVA said the city could save $95 annually per machine. I figure it’s just $80 at current rates, but it’s not small change.

It’s not that simple to cut these lights everywhere though, because the owner of the vending machine usually doesn’t pay the electric bill for the power that lights the machine. When I suggested that my employer (ORNL) should follow the city’s lead and cut off the advertising lights on its vending machines as part of its “Sustainable Campus Initiative,” I was told that the vending machine owner doesn’t want to do that — mostly because they figure the lights might help their business, and they think it would be a waste of the perfectly good light bulbs that the vendor bought to light the machines. So the vendor doesn’t need to consider the real cost of his actions, and ORNL continues to foot the bill for useless lighting, while missing out on what should be an easy opportunity for reducing energy consumption.

I have no doubt that the same situation prevails at the vending sites in state buildings, at state parks, etc. That is, the vending companies that receive the benefit of the lighting in their machines don’t pay the costs of that lighting — instead they pass it along to the state’s taxpayers — so they have no economic incentive to do the right thing. I don’t know who in the legislature proposed this legislation, but whoever it was deserves our thanks.

This is just one example of how difficult it can be to curtail activities that have a negative impact on our environment. In general, consumers of energy aren’t being charged the full costs of their (our!) actions, so they (we!) don’t have the necessary economic incentive to change their (our!) behavior.

I was gratified when the Oak Ridge City Council and city staff took the first steps toward a program of “greening” the city. I hope we will be able to continue to follow through with actions, even when those actions won’t always provide a clear near-term economic benefit.

Added on March 23: The bill (SB 395 – HB 616) has a fiscal note indicating that it would save the state $438,000 annually. What’s silly about that?

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Recycling: the future is here

The future of Oak Ridge recycling is now. Our new recycling carts have been delivered all over town, Waste Connections is collecting recyclables using a truck that is equipped to lift the carts and dump the contents into the truck, and the RecycleBank incentive program starts on Monday.

I’m hearing a lot of questions and comments about the new program. I don’t have answers to everything yet, but here are some questions and answers:

1. The cart is too big — we can’t possibly fill it in one week

Yes, the carts are big. Some households need a big cart, but many of us won’t. Before we approved the program, I asked about giving people the option of smaller carts. I learned that the lifting device on the truck has to grip the cart at a certain height, so a smaller cart would have to he the same height as the larger cart. That means it would be a skinnier cart, making it more susceptible to tipping over (for example, in the wind) and meaning that it would be harder to put bulky recyclables (like corrugated cardboard boxes into the cart. Also, there are logistical issues with giving different size carts to different households. As a result, everybody got the same size cart.

2. We have been putting plastic bags in our bins, but the label on the cart says they can’t be recycled. What’s up?

Ignore that part of the label. That part of the label is wrong. If you are skeptical of what I say, RecycleBank says on its website: “Welcome Oak Ridge Residents! …. PLASTIC BAGS ARE ACCEPTED IN THIS RECYCLING PROGRAM.” In addition to plastic bags, the program accepts:

Newspaper
Phone Books
Cardboard (flatten and place in cart)
Glass bottles and jars: clear, green, amber (rinse and discard lids)
Junk mail, magazines, catalogs and phone books
Metal cans: aluminum, steel
Office and school paper
Paper bags
Plastics #1 through #7

3. How do we sign up to get rewards?

You should have received a mailer with a unique ID number for your household. Register that number online at the RecycleBank website or phone the toll-free number on the cart (888-727-2978).

4. What happens to the material that’s collected for recycling? I hope it doesn’t go to a landfill!

The material we recycle goes to a materials recovery facility in Knoxville, where it is sorted (apparently this is mostly done by human crews who watch conveyor belts) and sold. As of a few months ago, the company said it had strong markets for all of the material it received; impressively, all materials except cheap polystyrene were being sold to U.S. buyers. In the current economy those markets have weakened, but the collected material is not being landfilled.

*5. We just moved in to our new house in a new subdivision, and we didn’t get a cart!

Call the local phone number for Waste Connections (482-3656) to request a cart, then call RecycleBank at the toll-free number to sign up for the incentives program.

*6. We would like to start recycling, but we are not physically able to push that cart to the curb.

If there is no one in the household physically able to transport recyclables to and from the curb, you should qualify to receive “back-door” collection for your recyclables. Call Waste Connections at 482-3656 for information.

**7. What if one recycling cart isn’t big enough for my family?

Here’s the answer based on information received today from the city manager: You can contract directly with Waste Connections for a second cart and weekly curbside collection. The cost is $6.50 per month per cart, billed quarterly, in advance. RecycleBank can set it up so that all carts at an address are credited to the same account.

However, you always have the option of giving your extra recyclables to a neighbor who has a smaller family!

*Added on March 9th.
**Added on April 7th.

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