Environmental windfall

VW settlement should boost electric buses and cars, say residents

 The IEPA's Brad Frost emphasized, "We have no projects announced and no decisions made." (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The IEPA's Brad Frost emphasized, "We have no projects announced and no decisions made." (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Residents from across the Chicago area urged the state Wednesday to use an environmental windfall to boost electric buses for schools and mass transit and to add fast-charging stations on highways for electric cars.

Dozens of people attended an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency outreach session held at the Thompson Center in Chicago Wednesday evening to submit their suggestions on what the state should do with its share of a $15 billion court settlement from Volkswagen, after the automaker was found to have distorted emission data in its diesel-powered cars.

It was the third statewide outreach session on the issue, following public meetings last week in Springfield and East St. Louis. According to IEPA spokesman Brad Frost, the agency has received about 1,600 public comments on the VW settlement.

Most of the massive settlement — brought on after it was found VW used software to exceed emission standards for its diesel vehicles — went to recalls, but Illinois figures to receive funding for zero-emission vehicles, like electric cars and buses, as well as $108 million in what's being called a "beneficiary mitigation plan."

Frost emphasized, "We have no projects announced and no decisions made," as he accepted comments from dozens of people over a two-hour meeting. He said it would be "highly likely" that any proposals would undergo significant changes on the way to implementation, with no deadline set for adoption.

Some 10 percent of funds have been earmarked for electric school buses, but some urged the state to expand that to 15 percent or even double it to 20.

Michelle Hoppe Villegas of Chicago spoke on "the actual cost of living across from a school," saying diesel bus fumes commonly permeate her home and threaten the health of her family. A member of the Mid-North Association in Lincoln Park, she said the "biggest impact" the settlement could have would be to "transition these school buses from diesel to electric."

Saying, "This is a huge oppurtunity for us," Wayne Giles, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, urged that settlement plans should be "focusing on the health and well-being of the residents of the State of Illinois."

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"This is a huge oppurtunity for us."

UIC Dean Wayne Giles (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

According to Frost, IEPA identified three goals: to reduce nitrogen emissions, which cause ozone; to maximize emission reductions; and to maximize the impact of the settlement by leveraging the funding, as with matching funds and similar programs.

"We are desperately in need of leadership from IEPA for clean transportation," said Connie Schmidt, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's River Prairie Group of DuPage County.

Mavis Bates, of the Sierra Club in Aurora, said, "One of our main goals must be to eliminate the use of fossil fuels."

Others urged that electric buses should be extended to mass transit as well, and that additional charging stations should be installed across the state's interstate-highway system, the fourth-largest in the nation. They also called for a program to encourage employers to install charging stations, thus encouraging commuters to make the shift to electric cars.

"The funding will allow for electric infrastructure," Frost said.

Some complained about a 65-35 split in funding for off-road and on-road vehicles, and said that ran counter to the ratio being contemplated in other nearby states. The off-road vehicles included train locomotives, as well as ferries and tugboats. Frost said that ratio could change as additional proposals are considered.

Richard Stuckey, another Sierra Club member, pointed out that "ferries and tugboats don't operate where people live" and that the majority of funding should be spent on cars and trucks.

Robert Wisz, however, begged to differ. Owner of Doreen's Gourmet Pizza and president of the Hegewisch Business Association, he said, "In my neighborhood, tugboats are a problem, because they come up the Calumet River and cause a lot of pollution."

The IEPA has identified Chicago, East St. Louis and seven other counties, primarily in north-central Illinois, as priority areas for the VW settlement. In the months ahead, it will be accepting applications for proposals and weighing their strengths and weaknesses on the way to getting the first round of projects going by the end of the year.

Ted Cox