Illinois is sitting on millions that could be spent to promote electric cars and cleaner air

It’s time to spend down the state’s $89 million Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust fund.

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A parking area with charging stations for electric vehicles at a public park is seen Thursday in Orlando, Fla. As part of an infrastructure proposal by the Biden administration, $174 billion will be set aside to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, electrify 20% of school buses and electrify the federal fleet, including U.S. Postal Service vehicles.

John Raoux/AP

Illinois has an electric vehicle chicken-and-egg problem.

More people and government agencies would use electric vehicles if there were more charging stations, and there would be a better argument for building more charging stations if more people and government agencies used electric vehicles.

Fortunately, a big wad of cash is sitting largely untouched in a state fund that could be used to resolve the conundrum, and it would be perfectly appropriate to do so. The state should spend the funds to help jump-start its electric vehicle conversion agenda.

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In 2016 and 2017, Illinois received $108 million from Volkswagen as part of a nationwide resolution of legal claims against the automaker, which had been caught secretly installing software on diesel cars to cheat the system and pass air quality tests. Of that money, $89 million still sits in the state’s Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust fund.

We can’t think of a better use for those funds than to speed up the state’s conversion to electric vehicles. Conventional trucks and cars have surpassed power plants as the prime source of the greenhouse gases that are overheating the planet.

At the same time, given that the power for electric vehicles ultimately comes from power plants, Illinois must do more to convert to sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar.

The Volkswagen money sits largely unspent because the original plan for the fund, drawn up by the Rauner administration, emphasized the continued use of fossil fuels, such as replacing old diesel engines with newer ones. The plan should have been revised when Rauner left office, but it has not.

We need a new plan now.

The money from the Volkswagen trust could be coupled with about $70 million set aside for vehicle electrification in Illinois’ 2019 capital bill — money that also has been just sitting around. That money is earmarked for installing electric charging stations in low-income areas and electrifying public transit, but none of the funds has been spent in two years.

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Additional money might also soon be available. The Clean Energy Jobs Act, which remains stalled in the Legislature, includes more than $700 million for transportation electrification, including public vehicles, school buses and charging infrastructure where the private sector has failed to provide it. President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill includes money for electric vehicle charging stations, retooling factories, credits for those who buy electric vehicles and electrifying the federal fleet.

Time will tell how much of that funding comes through, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker — who says he wants to see 750,000 electric vehicles on Illinois roads by the year 2030 — has no reason to wait.

By tapping those Volkswagen funds, he could do more right now to achieve that goal.

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