Budget cuts imperil Metra cleanup

By:  Michael Hawthorne
Chicago Tribune

Budget battles in the nation's capital are threatening Metra's efforts to clean up toxic diesel pollution breathed every day by hundreds of thousands of Chicago-area commuters.

The 2011 spending bill pushed by majority Republicans in the U.S. House would cut funding for a program that has dramatically reduced lung- and heart-damaging air pollution from thousands of old diesel engines in the last five years. President Barack Obama's proposed 2012 budget would eliminate the program entirely.

Metra has been counting on a $341,000 grant through the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act to upgrade 27 of its oldest locomotives with equipment that would automatically shut down the engines shortly after they arrive at Union Station, LaSalle Street Station or Ogilvie Transportation Center. The transit agency also has applied for federal funding to add pollution controls to locomotives built in the 1970s.

For now at least, it appears that money is in danger of being eliminated. But U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin vowed Friday he will fight to restore it when the spending bills reach the Senate.

"Some of these fixes are practical and easy, some are expensive and some are experimental," Durbin said after meeting with Alex Clifford, Metra's new executive director. "We are going to have to deal with the fiscal realities that limit the options we have."

Both Durbin and Clifford said the agency is focused on finding cost-effective ways to reduce diesel pollution from Metra's locomotives and to improve ventilation on its passenger coaches. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and assistant Senate majority leader, has been pressuring the transit agency to improve since a Tribune investigation revealed that commuters routinely are exposed to spikes in diesel soot while traveling in the stainless-steel cars.

Testing that Metra did in response to the newspaper's probe found that the highest soot levels occur in outbound trains.

The average levels measured during individual trips were well above what is normally found on urban streets, and the highest levels were hundreds of times higher.

Metra officials say they can't afford to replace locomotives with the newest, cleanest models. Instead, they are spending federal and state tax dollars to refurbish a third of their aging fleet to keep the highly polluting engines chugging for at least another two decades