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Breathless over Brightline

Breathless over Brightline?

by Dr Nada Boskovic

This article examines the human health risks of Boca’s proposed train station design and how the design could be changed to mitigate them.

Opinions expressed by article authors are their own.

As a physician, I am guided by the Hippocratic Oath and taught to first Do No Harm. My professional training and experience leads me to want to understand the risks posed by the train station design to the existing community well being as well as the future high-rise permitted in the design. People living in the immediate area of the Brightline station have a right to enjoy the best possible physical and mental health. They have repeatedly asked the City Council to change the design to relocate the garage to the center of the lot as shown in the artist rendering below. I concur with that recommendation.  If you agree, contact your elected officials.


As shown (L to R):
Jeremy Rodgers jrodgers@ci.boca-raton.fl.us
Andrea Levine O’Rourke aorourke@ci.boca-raton.fl.us
Mayor Scott Singer ssinger@ci.boca-raton.fl.us
Monica Mayotte mmayotte@ci.boca-raton.fl.us
Andy Thomson athomson@myboca.us

Local artist rendering of alternative station design. Not a Virgin Trains rendering.
Local artist rendering of alternative station design. Not a Virgin Trains rendering.

The Importance of Human Health Studies Around Railways

Through research and experience, science has improved our understanding of how and why transportation emissions are hazardous to human health. We accept and balance these things in our modern life for the benefits they provide. But through our understanding of their effects, we have gained knowledge of how to manage them and minimize their effects. This knowledge is fundamental to designing transit in residential areas.

We are asked to believe removing vehicles traveling 15 minutes through a city by highway helps air quality but traveling 15 minutes locally to and from a train station “has no adverse air impacts”.

Emissions Savings are Regional Not Local

The U.S. transportation sector, which includes cars, trucks, planes, trains, and boats, emits 1.9 billion tons of CO2 annually. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it’s the biggest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. The argument in favor of passenger rail is that it reduces traffic congestion and emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on roadways. That calculation requires Brightline to attract and maintain enough riders to achieve a net gain in the emissions of all its trains and routes vs the vehicles it removes from the road. In making that diversion of vehicle drivers to train riders, emissions are moved from the roadways to railways and surrounds. So while the region benefits, emissions where the railways and stations are located may, in fact, increase as vehicle drivers divert from highway to Downtown Boca Raton roads. 

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector 2017
U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Gas and Sector 2017

The Dangers of Self Regulation

The “Potential Air Quality Impacts” document Deputy City Manager George Brown has provided to the City Council about the environmental safety of the proposed Boca Brightline station relies on his evaluation of the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) 2013 Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) and the 2015 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) prepared by Brightline (previously All Aboard Florida). 

However, the conclusions in these two studies are based on averaging air quality impacts over the entire Orlando to West Palm Beach or the West Palm to Miami segments. At that level, the documents conclude there is a net benefit over those large regions. They do not provide analysis of the impact of a local station such as the proposed downtown Boca Raton station. In particular, the document cites section S-12 of the FEIS study (below) to dismiss local impacts such as this with a broad finding that used 2015 traffic volumes for crossings from West Palm Beach and Miami.

Section S-12 of 2015 FEIS Report
Section S-12 of 2015 FEIS Report

The dangers of concluding that the findings for large regions are equal to station areas are obvious. We are asked to believe removing vehicles traveling 15 minutes through a city by highway helps air quality but traveling 15 minutes locally to and from a train station “has no adverse air impacts”.  But there is another inadequacy in the FRA studies as it regards the Boca Raton station. They don’t include the largest contributor to local spillover pollution – the Open Air Garage. 

The Toxic Culprits:

There are three toxic culprits in the proposed Boca Raton train station that will increase pollution levels locally:

  1. Biodiesel Emissions of trains stopping at a station
  2. Garage Parking for downtown and train patrons
  3. Train station specific traffic (shuttles, Uber, rider dropoff/pickup, etc) 

Are Passing Trains as Clean as Stopping Trains?

Brightline uses EPA Tier 4 rated locomotives which is the highest rating possible. Currently, when trains pass through Boca Raton, the by-products of their biofuel combustion are emitted at a constant rate for roughly 6 seconds as the 2 locomotives and passenger cars pass by. But trains making a station stop don’t operate like cars that idle down at a stoplight and then stomp on the accelerator. When making a station stop, emissions occur slightly longer during deceleration/acceleration periods but stay idling for the full two minute station stop. For the emissions of a passing train to be equal to a train stop, the emissions during deceleration, 2 minutes idling and acceleration have to be the same as a 6 second pass at cruising speed. This like other things specific to a station in Boca, are not detailed in the Potential Air Impacts Discussion report submitted to the City Council. 

Brightline passing “at speed” through downtown Boca Raton Library.

Parking Garages are Dirtier Than You Think

As for garages, studies indicate that there are various pollutants toxic to humans which come from garages as well as parking lots. But parking garages concentrate car emissions in a smaller space than parking lots. As detailed in this Science Daily report, they are known as some of the larger producers of spillover pollution. Their toxins, as reported by the National Center for Biotechnology Information include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and others.

I believe people in all of these places are in varying degrees of exposure to toxic inhalation.

Because the Boca station’s design has the garage positioned so as to allow an adjacent residential high-rise in the future, the emissions impact will be to both the nearby residential homes and the future residential high-rise. With the garage in close proximity to people’s backyards, pools, passthrough pedestrians, library patrons and possible future high-rise, I believe people in all of these places are in varying degrees of exposure to toxic inhalation. The increase in population density as development progresses, will only magnify this effect.

Station Design and Location Affect Air Quality and Human Health

When it comes to changes to local traffic, Boca Raton’s station depends on “last mile” transportation to educational, employer and cultural centers. This intuitively has a potential to increase emissions over current levels, especially taking into consideration that half of all car trips are just 1-10 miles in the United States, presumably as local residents run errands nearer their homes, the train cannot service these needs.

Air Pollution Effects on the Human Body. [Source: Thurston, G.D., et al., (2017). Eur Respir J, 2017. 49(1).]

The Carbon Monoxide – ToxFAQs infosheet by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that motor vehicles emit CO at high rates when they are operating at low speeds or idling in queues. As people are continuously parking their cars, accelerating, or waiting in lines, “increased particulate matter concentrations in the ambient air correlate with a negative influence on the health condition of the nearby population” as reported in this study. The US Dept. of Health and Human Services states in this report that being in contact with these emissions constitutes chemical exposure health risks on body systems; the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, nervous system, and immune system. For more on this topic, see this article.

The “Soup Effect”

Exposure from toxins puts humans at risk of increased free radicals and potential illnesses, including cancers. However, multiple pollutants create synergistic toxin effects. Based on experiences from 9/11 Ground Zero, a prime example of “The Soup Effect” – In an environment such as a train station and parking garage, this same effect is probable. Outdoor air pollution (a toxic “soup” of chemicals, particulate matter, and biological materials combining to react with each other) is a public human health issue, contributing to chronic diseases, increased hospitalization, and premature mortality. Placing the parking garage centered between the north and south boundaries with open space between it and the library and not allowing a future high-rise will provide the best opportunity for the environment to absorb this airborne “soup”.

The Medical Perspective

The effects of emissions on humans is medical not technical. In my opinion, the 2013 Federal Railroad Administration FONSI report and 2015 Environmental Impact Statement in Mr Brown’s document are based on potentially inaccurate ridership projections and apples to oranges comparison of impacts between a large region as having the same impact on the specific station in downtown Boca Raton. I do not believe as Mr Brown states that the impact on the air we breathe from the trains stopping, cars parking and local station generated traffic will not be adverse for the local area as Mr Brown claims. 

George Brown Summary
George Brown Summary.

Other Questions About Human Health Arise

Will it mean poorer performance and increased health risks for those being physically active at the tennis center due to the increased metabolic rate?

Is this going to be harmful to the children at the Daycare Center across from the Library? According to the American Lung Association, Children are outside for longer periods and are usually more active when outdoors. Consequently, they inhale more polluted outdoor air than adults typically do.

What will be protecting our children, students, athletes, the elderly, and the local population in the downtown directly across the tracks? 

Do the Greatest Good for the People

I preach prevention of disease every day to patients. I therefore can only advocate that Boca Raton’s Council Members fast track a specific and independent Human Health Impact Study as part of any approval of Ordinance 5509 and commit to functional design changes that mitigate its effects on human health for the area.

The 2019 Hippocratic Oath: wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocratic_Oath
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.
I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will protect the environment which sustains us, in the knowledge that the continuing health of ourselves and our societies is dependent on a healthy planet.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

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