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posted: 7/27/2011 5:00 AM

Remember the three R's of toll hikes

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

The state doesn't have the money.

Suburban mayors warn against using local taxes to pay for it.

And the Illinois Toll Highway Authority already anticipates being short of money to take care of existing roads.

All want to extend the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway eastward and connect it to a new road ringing O'Hare International Airport on the west. But how would they front the cash?

If you guessed a toll increase, you're thinking along the lines of Gov. Pat Quinn, his Elgin-O'Hare advisory council and at least some tollway administrators and board members.

The tollway board is likely to vote Thursday on a proposed 10-year capital construction plan that includes the Elgin-O'Hare extension and the western O'Hare access road. Quinn, tollway officials and some suburban mayors are pushing the projects as job engines, and it's hard to argue with them on that.

Yet, at a cost between $2.2 billion and $3.6 billion, the road project has no source of ready cash that can be leveraged to cover the planned work -- unless it comes from the driving public. A toll hike is on the table, with alternatives ranging from ridiculous to reasonable.

Ridiculous: Take the segment of I-290 between I-355 and I-90, now a freeway running between Addison and Schaumburg, and make it toll. We oppose that trial balloon, which almost seems calculated to get tollway users on board with a less extravagant toll hike. "That's not going to fly," DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin, an adviser to Quinn on the Elgin-O'Hare plan, acknowledged.

Reasonable: Build the Elgin-O'Hare extension and western airport road as toll roads, and let them pay for themselves.

Unfortunately, the third "R" is reality.

The tollway staff says the tab for new construction comes on top of a $1 billion funding gap for regular maintenance and improvements to existing toll roads over the next decade, with major work anticipated on the I-294, I-88, I-90 and I-355. That shortfall is part of the case being made for a systemwide toll increase.

Roads have to be maintained, and it's important to keep major projects like Elgin-O'Hare on the table. Yet, this still-tenuous economy calls for a very cautious approach to a systemwide toll hike. With so many commuters making less money at their jobs, it's not the time to charge them more just to get there.

We challenge Quinn and the tollway authority to come up with a plan that holds off on a systemwide toll increase for now, in hopes a real economic turnaround soon will allow the 10-year construction plan -- including the Elgin-O'Hare and western O'Hare access road -- to move forward. It won't be easy, we know. Nothing is in this economy. But even reasonable notions today have to take the economic reality of our times.