Illinois program uses funds to go greener

By Blaise Mesa

Illinois is replacing old diesel engines with more eco-friendly alternatives, hoping to improve air quality.

The Driving a Cleaner Illinois program will fund the replacement of older engines with money awarded as part of the Volkswagen Settlement—a multi-billion dollar settlement with the federal government over Clean Air Act violations, according to an Aug. 29 press release from Governor Bruce Rauner’s office. Illinois will begin by using $20 million to replace engines in government-owned commuter rail and public transit bus projects in the Chicago Metropolitan area.

The press release did not specify what the more eco-friendly options are, but Illinois EPA is proposing to use electric buses in Cook County school systems. Metra is receiving cleaner-burning diesel engines, according to Michael Gillis, a spokesperson for Metra.

Gillis said he expects no major delays in replacing older diesel engines with newer engines on Metra trains. Gillis was unable to comment on how many engines Metra will be replacing,  but said he expects there will be more engines to replace than they will receive.

The Chicago Transit Authority did not comment on how the program will affect transit times in Chicago as of press time.

“From a health perspective, [the program] is a good idea,” said Colleen Callahan, deputy director at the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Air pollution had the largest negative impact on health in Illinois in 2017, according to  American Health Rankings’ annual report.

There are at least two regions that are not meeting federal air quality standards, said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. Those areas include Cook, DuPage, Lake, Will and Kane counties, along with Madison and Saint Clair counties near St. Louis.

Diesel engines have been linked to 38,000 global premature deaths in 2015, according to  a May 2017 study published in the International Journal of Science.

“Our electric grid is getting cleaner and cleaner every day,” Walling said. “But our diesel engines are getting dirtier and dirtier every day.”

Walling said the switch from diesel to electric engines was overdue.

Karl Gnadt is a managing director at the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, which has been using diesel-electric hybrid engines in buses since 2009.

The diesel-electric hybrid fleet the MTD has makes up 84 percent of its 111 buses, and gets 40 percent better fuel consumption than regular diesel engines, Gnadt said.

“We are using about half the amount of fuel on the [hybrid] buses that we would if we had replaced those buses with a diesel bus,” Gnadt said. “That is significant fuel savings.”

The hybrid buses also have diesel particulate filters, which filter emissions more effectively, resulting in 98 percent cleaner emissions than previous models in use.

Gnadt said he did not notice any difference in the performance of the hybrid diesel buses compared to regular diesel buses.

“[Hybrid buses] have the same torque, power and energy as a [regular] diesel bus,” he said.

The program also allows for cities, schools and private businesses to submit project ideas to Illinois EPA about how they will replace older engines with more eco-friendly alternatives, the release said. 

Applications for the program are due Oct. 15. 

The Chicagoland area is slated for the first round of funding, with Metro-East St. Louis, Champaign, DeKalb, LaSalle, McLean, Peoria, Sangamon and Winnebago counties receiving subsequent rounds.

Not every company will be able to afford to replace transit vehicles in their fleet with more eco-friendly options, Callahan said. But with Illinois helping to fund these projects,  the burden is reduced.

Callahan added that transit companies that have depots to park buses and trains will have an easier time than private companies placing charging stations for their electric vehicles.

“I don’t think that this policy will move us over to attainment areas [in Illinois],” Walling said. “There are a lot of different emissions, [but] transportation is an important sector that contributes to air quality emissions.”