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Feds OK tolls on Elgin-O’Hare Expy., paving way for western access to airport

Updated: February 26, 2013 6:32AM

Federal officials have signed off on plans to convert the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway into a wider, longer, “all-electronic’’ tollway — with an estimated 20-cents-a-mile toll — that would access the western edge of O’Hare Airport by 2018, state officials said Thursday.

Full completion of the long-awaited Elgin O’Hare Western Access Project would come around 2025, when the 16-mile tollway also would extend north into the I-90 Jane Addams Memorial Tollway and south into the I-294 Tri-State Tollway.

The $3.4 billion project includes a ramp at York Road with access to the western side of O’Hare — an area some suburban leaders have long hoped would house a western airport terminal or a parking lot with a people mover to the eastern side of O’Hare.

“At this point, what that ends up accessing is the question,’’ lllinois Tollway executive director Kristi Lafleur said Thursday. “But there will be western access, which is very exciting.’’

If the western side of O’Hare is not modernized by 2018, Lafleur said, the York Road ramp would at least provide access to drive around to the main side of the airport.

But, Lafleur said, surrounding communities “would like to work with the airport and leadership to see that there is something there.’’ The tollway project will create the infrastructure to “fully leverage’’ any future modernization of O’Hare’s western edge, she said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation late Wednesday indicated it would allow the Illinois Tollway to charge tolls on the new project — clearing the last major federal hurdle to construction. The written deal with the feds was still being finalized Thursday, federal officials said.

The project should reduce congestion, cut commute times, allow suburban businesses to move their products more efficiently and create an estimated 65,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2040, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a joint news release.

Lafleur said the new booth-free tollway would constitute the “first all-electronic toll road on our system.’’ Tolling sites have not yet been decided, and it was possible travelers might have to pay more than one toll during their drive, Lafleur said.

How drivers without I-passes would be charged is still to be determined, Lafleur said, but they may well be charged more than I-pass drivers, as they are now when they pull up to a cash booth.

Bensenville Mayor Frank Soto called winning the last main rung of federal approval of the project “a great accomplishment” that speeds the day when drivers can enter O’Hare Airport from the west.

Easier access to O’Hare should draw manufacturing, assembly and shipping businesses to the region, Soto said. The project represents a “phenomenal opportunity for the whole area” but in particular is “tremendously important to Bensenville,’’ which sits at the “gateway” of western access to O’Hare. Soto said.

Despite years of delays and the lack of an agreement for a west O’Hare terminal, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said Thursday he finally believes the entire project will eventually get built.

“We’re not done yet,” Cronin said, “but I feel very confident that this project will get done.’’

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