Suburban drivers could face a toll increase down the road as the Illinois tollway grapples with a $1 billion gap in highway maintenance needs and contemplates billions of dollars in new construction.
The agency Monday wrapped up the last of five forums on its 10-year capital plan. About $6 billion is required between now and 2026 to preserve or reconstruct the Tri-State, I-88, I-90 and I-355 with only $5 billion in revenues available.
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"That's just what we need to do to keep our system in good repair," Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said.
Then there's the mega projects -- extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east into the airport and building a western bypass around O'Hare, constructing an interchange at I-294 and I-57, adding lanes and space for mass transit along I-90, and expanding Route 53 north.
The forums coincided with the release of a report by an advisory group commissioned by Gov. Pat Quinn recommending the tollway adopt the Elgin-O'Hare extension and suggesting that a systemwide toll hike could pay for the work, estimated to cost between $2.2 billion and $3.6 billion.
Tollway directors have not voted on the capital plan or formally talked about raising rates. But with capital funds from state and federal governments drying up, tolls are one of the few sources of immediate cash that could be leveraged to borrow the billions needed.
"I'm not enthusiastic about imposing an increase on anyone," DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said at Monday's forum in Wheaton, where the Elgin-O'Hare extension was the main topic. "But a project of this magnitude is going to cost something." Cronin also is a member of Quinn's advisory council.
Both Quinn and tollway officials stressed that a robust capital program will mean construction work, and subsequent economic development will lead to permanent jobs, a trade-off that could help sell an unpopular toll increase.
"A capital plan can start driving the economy," Lafleur said.
One trial balloon floated by Quinn's Elgin-O'Hare advisory council was to institute tolls on I-290 between I-355 and I-90 to pay for the extension.
"That's not going to fly," Cronin said.
But the Elgin-O'Hare extension won't be built without raising tolls, he predicted, adding that the key is to tie an increase to economic benefits to the public.
Naperville Mayor and tollway director George Pradel said congestion relief is key. "I think people would go for it (higher tolls) if they saw it saves them time."
However, Director Bill Morris of Grayslake said he wasn't ready for such a step, adding "the devil's in the details."
Not surprisingly, comments at individual tollway forums centered on projects important to each region.
At a packed Friday forum in Lake County, participants focused on the proposed extension of Route 53 north from Lake-Cook Road. The tollway has classified that project, which could cost about $1.8 billion, as a lower priority than the Tri-State/I-57 interchange, Elgin-O'Hare expansion or I-90 rebuild.
Wednesday in Kane County, attendees talked about the need for full interchanges, such as a planned improvement at I-90 and I-47 in Huntley.
And, at Monday's forum in DuPage, attention centered on the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and western bypass, which would stretch along the western end of the airport, connecting with the Tri-State to the south in Franklin Park, the EOH expressway in the middle and I-90 to the north near Des Plaines.
Local mayors agreed with tollway officials the project would open up retail and industrial development in DuPage but warned against using any local taxes to pay for it.
Tollway Chair Paula Wolff said the agency is expected to decide on its next big project and how to fund it soon.
Meanwhile, tollway watchdog Sen. Susan Garrett said she wouldn't rule out higher tolls if the agency could justify it.
"A toll increase could be considered if there was going to be improvements to the roads or extensions of roads or adding new lanes that would bring additional benefits to consumers," the Lake Forest Democrat said.
Toll rates are currently an average of 2.6 cents a mile. I-PASS users in passenger cars typically pay 40 cents per toll plaza except on I-355 where the rate is 50 cents. The agency's last toll increase was in 2005 when rates doubled for people paying cash.