Illinois Tollway Board approves steep 87 percent toll increase
BY DAN ROZEK Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org August 25, 2011 11:44AM
The Illinois Tollway Board of Directors passed a $12 billion, 15-year capital plan and corresponding toll hikes at Tollway HQ, 2700 Ogden Ave., Downers Grove. Director Bill Morris, left, of Lake County was the only vote against the plan. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: November 4, 2011 9:56AM
Tolls will cost nearly twice as much but motorists ultimately will drive on a rebuilt, expanded and less congested tollway network, officials promised Thursday following passage of a massive $12 billion reconstruction program.
The “Move Illinois” plan overwhelmingly approved by the Illinois Tollway board will build a “21st Century” highway network that produces both transportation and economic benefits, supporters said.
The improvements, though, will take a toll on drivers: tolls rates will jump 87 percent beginning Jan. 1. The cheapest toll plazas now will cost I-PASS users 75 cents, up from 40 cents.
Drivers without I-PASS will continue to pay twice as much, seeing their lowest rates at toll plazas jump to $1.50 from 80 cents.
But backers insisted the expansion project is crucial to keeping the Chicago area moving — literally and economically.
“We think it’s worth it because we’ll have a better system when we’re done and Chicago will be positioned well to be economically competitive,” said board chairman Paula Wolff, who backed the program.
The 15-year program calls for rebuilding, widening, expanding and overhauling large chunks of the sprawling system’s 286 miles of highways:
◆ Rebuilding and adding an extra lane in each direction to the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) between Rosemont and Rockford.
◆ Reconstructing the central Tri-State Tollway (I-294) from 95th Street to Balmoral Avenue; rebuilding the Edens Spur.
◆ Constructing an interchange linking I-294 and I-57, one of only two locations in the country where interstates cross but don’t connect.
◆ Constructing the Elgin-O’Hare western bypass between I-90 and I-294; rebuilding and widening the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway.
◆ Repairing the Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88) and Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355).
Gov. Pat Quinn said he believes the long-term plan was needed unless the Chicago area wanted to become known as “the shock absorber capital of the United States.”
“Those are user fees. People who use the tollway understand we have to maintain the tollway,” Quinn said. “If it has a pothole, we have to refill the pothole.”
The improvements also should cut congestion, reducing travel times and gasoline expenses as cars spend less time idling in stalled traffic, tollway officials said.
Expanding the Jane Addams Tollway could slice 25 minutes off a trip from Elgin to the Kennedy Expressway, according to tollway projections. Building the Elgin-O’Hare western bypass could cut 13 minutes from a five-mile trip from I-290 to York Road, projections show.
The plan passed by a 7-1 vote, with only board member Bill Morris opposing it.
Morris, a former state legislator from Lake County, was upset the program doesn’t include funds to extend Illinois 53 deep into Lake County, though money is planned to study the long-stalled extension. The four-lane highway currently ends at Lake-Cook Road.
“It is unreasonable and unfair that Route 53 is not included,” said Morris.
Morris also wanted smaller toll increases phased in over time to give motorists more time to adjust to the higher costs, an idea that quickly died when no other board members supported it.
He noted poorer residents who don’t typically use I-PASS could see their annual tolls rise by a painful $400 to $500.
Even supporters acknowledged the higher tolls could hurt some drivers who rely on the tollways to get to work or travel through the region.
“It’s definitely tough, we had no doubt about that, and each of us struggled with that as a board member,” Wolff said of the cost to drivers.
She and other backers said the higher tolls are needed to build a modern, efficient highway system.
“It’s going to allow us to build a 21st century system that’s safe, that reduces congestion, that we hope reduces pollution, and it’s going to be able to allow commercial traffic to flow through the region in a way that keeps us globally competitive,” Wolff said.
The long-term plan will pump $21 billion into the regional economy, with construction funded by higher tolls expected create more than 13,000 construction jobs annually for the next 10 years, according to tollway figures.
“This will put our members back to work,” said Tom Villanova, president of the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council.
Tollway officials said 15 public hearings held earlier this month across the area showed strong support for their expansion plans.
Of those speaking at the hearings, 81 percent favored the expansion, while 88 percent of those submitting written comments supported the capital plan, according to tollway statistics.
Morris, though, said the support was “orchestrated” by supporters, including those in the construction and building trades who see the plan as a way to get jobs for their membership.
On Thursday, Bensenville resident Donald Dionesotes was one of the few opponents who turned out to register a last-minute objection to a plan he said was simply too costly.
“I’m suspicious of any government organization that has a big-bucks plan,” said Dionesotes, a former limousine driver. “I’m in favor of improving the system but this is just too much money.”
Quinn and others acknowledged tolls were supposed to disappear once the construction bonds that initially built the highways were paid off, but said there now were no other alternatives to keeping — and hiking — the tolls.
“That happened a long time ago,” Quinn said. “The bottom line is the federal government is reducing its investment in transportation.”
Board member George Pradel said the construction program ultimately is needed simply to keep traffic moving across the region.
“The tollway’s mission is to move people,” Pradel said. “It’s time to bite the bullet.”
Contributing: Abdon M. Pallasch