September 7, 2007

CHICAGO (Sept. 7)—After a six-month series of meetings the Illinois Climate Change Advisory Group has voted to approve a slate of policy recommendations it will submit to Gov. Rod Blagojevich in an effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Among those recommendations: Build a bigger state-supported passenger-rail program so more motorists and frequent flyers can switch to low-polluting trains.

The recommendation was spearheaded by UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, who was named to the panel by Gov. Blagojevich last Feb. 1. A broad coalition of labor and environmental members on the panel supported the recommendation.

“While labor has concerns with some of the Panel’s recommendations, urging upgrades and expansion of our passenger-rail program was one of the least controversial positions the Advisory Panel took,” Szabo said. “Essentially all of the panel members accepted that a diesel-powered train moving 200 or 300 passengers at a time uses about half the fuel per passenger as driving in private cars and about two thirds of the fuel needed for air travel. And when you burn less fossil fuel you leave half as much carbon dioxide in the air. It’s that simple. There was no downside.”

Szabo said the panel also recommended greater development of mass-transit options and infrastructure improvements to make the railroad system more attractive to freight shippers.

“The environmental superiority of rail was recognized in all its forms,” Szabo said.

Gov. Blagojevich established the Advisory Group in order to get expert input on the most practical steps the state could take to reduce its “carbon footprint.” On Oct. 31, 2006, the state more than doubled the number of Amtrak trains it sponsors, adding two daily round trips on the Chicago-St. Louis line and a second round trip on both the Chicago-Carbondale and Chicago-Quincy routes.

“By the time we held our first Advisory Group meeting in February 2007 the power of passenger trains to divert travelers from the highways had been proven,” Szabo said. “We were looking at January ridership growth of nearly 70 per cent system wide and more than 100 per cent in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.”

Szabo said that two of the Panel’s co-chairs, Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carigan and Environmental Law and Policy Center Executive Director Howard Learner, were particularly supportive of recommending the capital investments necessary to expand the state passenger rail system and improve speed and reliability.

“Mike Carigan understood the potential for significant job growth – good union jobs in our state – and Howard Learner understood the environmental benefits,” Szabo said. “It was a win-win.”

Not all of the recommendations were as non-controversial as the passenger-train endorsement.

Two such proposals voted by the panel include a “cap-and-trade” system that would allow industries to “buy” the right to emit greenhouse gases, and “California-style” emissions limits on motor vehicles sold in the state.

“Labor dissented on approval of cap-and-trade as a state policy but does support it if it’s administered on a nationwide basis,” Szabo said. “We don’t want to see well paying, unionized coal or power- utility jobs migrate out of states with tough emissions standards and into states with looser standards. We need a policy that puts all the states on a level playing field so no state can use emissions as an excuse to steal another’s jobs.”

Szabo noted that the Advisory Group’s recommendations are not binding.

“We can only provide the governor with advice,” he said. “It will be up to the governor and the General Assembly to enact the principles approved by the Advisory Group into law. The UTU and Illinois AFL-CIO will be making certain that both the Governor and General Assembly know where we stand on these important jobs, transportation, and environmental issues.”