CHICAGO (WBBM) – Metra is pleading with U.S. House Republicans not to eliminate federal funding that would be spent on improving the air quality at its downtown train terminals.

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Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said after meeting with Metra’s new executive director, Alex Clifford, that he is lending his support to the effort to reduce diesel soot, especially particulates that can create the “blue haze” in the air at downtown terminals, especially Union Station.

Given the billions of dollars in unfunded capital projects facing Chicago area mass transit, the $341,000 U.S. Dept. of Transportation grant may not seem like much. But Clifford said it would allow the commuter rail agency to install equipment that would automatically shut down locomotives that idle for more than a few minutes.

“This is important money for us,” he said. “It will retrofit 27 of our locomotives.”

Metra has a fleet of 155 locomotives, and Durbin said that replacing each of them with engines sporting the latest emissions equipment, at a cost of $5-6 million apiece, would cost nearly $1 billion. He said that kind of federal grant is out of the question, but said smaller, targeted grants of this type can help accomplish much of the same goal.

Durbin said he is already looking for alternative ways to fund the retrofit and other soot-reduction efforts, including programs that are funded for the current federal fiscal year but may be eliminated in FY2012.

Metra is trying to improve air quality in its terminals and aboard its trains buy taking two steps that do not require a federal grant — installing high-tech filters on its bilevels and switching to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel in April.

A special Metra committee continues to assess air quality and discuss other actions that could be taken.

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