Will we be converting our transponders into coasters?
That could be the future of tolling, said Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Executive Director Kristi Lafleur, who marked her anniversary with the agency in April.
In a recent conversation, she talked about a transponder-less system, changing rules for violations and if there's a toll increase on the horizon.
One challenge the authority faces is a projected $1 billion shortfall for its existing system needs. Lafleur said two upcoming audits on the electronic toll collection system and tollway management could point to ways to cut costs or find new revenues.
Asked if a toll increase is on the table, Lafleur said, "It's too soon to tell."
"Before we go and look to our customers to come up with more money, we want to make sure we're doing what we need to be doing in collecting the money that's owed and operating efficiently," she said.
To ensure it's recouping everything it can from toll revenues, the agency is reworking its electronic equipment so that transponder reads are accurate. Errors can cost millions in lost revenue that has to be recaptured, Lafleur said.
But in the future, transponders could become obsolete if technology improves so cameras can simply pick up all that's necessary from license plates. When that information is linked with databases, it could mean tolls are deducted automatically from the accounts of registered customers and new customers are billed, Lafleur said.
"Many tollway systems are invoicing customers. We're looking at those models," she said. "The next generation may be a transponder-less generation.
"We've taken a step back to review our electronic toll collection system. It's a good system but it's been five to six years since it was first installed and there's room and a need for improvements."
The agency also is scrutinizing its violations policy. Currently, if three violations are incurred in two years, customers are sent a notice and fined.
The time lag "can be confusing for people to deal with," Lafleur said. "At the least, we can make it more clear and understandable. Everything is on the table."
In 2010, staff announced a snafu in collecting tolls from Indiana drivers resulted in losing $1.6 million. This occurred after the tollway stopped issuing notices because of misreads of Hoosier license plates then didn't resume when the error was fixed.
"I wasn't too thrilled to find this out a couple months after I started," Lafleur said. "And it was somewhat painful to track people down after many years of not sending notices."
Better technology will catch drops in revenue in the future, but the error was also human, Lafleur said. "There definitely was a contract management problem between tollway staff and our vendor (Electronic Transactions Consultants Corp.)."
Since the glitch occurred, the tollway's chief of business systems, Stan Ryniewski, has left.
"Stan left of his own accord, we appreciate his work," Lafleur said. "We want to be sure we have a strong team in place to move forward."
Among the mega projects the tollway could undertake are extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east to the airport and building a bypass around the airport's west end connecting to the EOH, I-294 to the south and I-90 to the north.
The tollway hasn't adopted it yet, but Lafleur acknowledges that "there will have to be user fees to pay for that roadway."
User fees sound an awful lot like tolls to me, but "we haven't made any final decisions," she said. "It's definitely something we're looking at."
Estimates indicate the expressway extension and bypass will be popular, generating significant traffic and therefore significant revenues. "But we don't know if it's enough to completely pay for it."
The tollway also considers an interchange at I-294 and I-57 as a high priority, she added.
Another issue for the agency is how to pay for rebuilding and possibly adding another lane on the Jane Addams Tollway. If another lane is added, planners are looking at a congestion pricing option, meaning the lane would be more expensive to ride in during rush hours.
"We know during peak travel times, 15 percent of people on the road don't have to be driving at that particular time," Lafleur said.
"Congestion pricing works in other parts of the world and country to maximize capacity," she added. "The idea is to create the right balance so 15 percent of the drivers leave an hour later or an hour earlier in the morning and the same with evening rush hour. And if you have to make it to day care or left late and have to be downtown in time for work, you can choose to pay a little more and have faster traffic in those lanes."
For years the agency has been associated with political shenanigans under both former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan. During Blagojevich's ongoing corruption retrial, witnesses have testified on whether he pressured a construction executive for donations in exchange for a massive $1.8 billion tollway building program.
"I do believe we've brought more transparency to the tollway," said Lafleur.
She cited actions such as webcasting meetings, cutting the operating budget, allowing drivers with violation notices to view license plates online and fostering a culture where board members discuss issues openly instead of behind closed doors.
Certainly the agency has spent hours talking about what building project to take on next, unlike a fall 2008 news conference where Blagojevich announced the $1.8 billion construction program with "green lanes," out of the blue.
"We discuss things in public," Lafleur said. "I don't know how they treated major decisions previously."
Recently, the tollway revealed that an audit on political hiring showed it had several people on staff who had been unqualified for their jobs. "This speaks to a greater level of transparency -- our audit discovered the issue and it was discussed at a public meeting," Lafleur said.
She also listed new partnerships with Illinois universities and institutions such as Argonne National Laboratory, which is studying how the tollway can cut energy use, as accomplishments, as well as gradual improvements and new restaurants at the oases.
For the future, "we'll continue to strive to be as lean as possible in operations, to serve our customers and think creatively about what they need from us. That's the only way the tollway will continue to prosper."
Reader Jim Wolf added his two cents to our ongoing look at distracted driving. The Arlington Heights resident wrote, "there has been a situation that I consider distracted driving that's been around since before the electronic age. Two weeks ago, we observed a woman driving with a dog bounding on and off her lap as she drifted from her lane into the other lane and back. Some people might consider this cute but I call it dangerous."
Learn more about plans to restrict the seniors ride free on public transit program, at hearings this week. Free rides will be limited to low-income seniors as of Sept. 1. Upcoming meetings are at: 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Pace headquarters, 550 W. Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights; 10 a.m. Thursday, DuPage County administrative building, 421 N. County Farm Road, Wheaton; and 2 p.m. Thursday, McHenry County administration building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.
You should know
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Don't say I didn't warn you. The CN Railway crossing at Touhy Avenue just east of Mannheim Road in Des Plaines will be closed until Friday for repairs. Detour signs will be posted.