Blagojevich name still appropriate for tollway signs
News headline: Illinois road tolls would almost double.
Other than state impeachment papers and federal jury forms stamped "guilty," the most appropriate place for Rod Blagojevich's name was always on Illinois tollway signs.
It just seemed to be such a good fit: "Rod R. Blagojevich, Governor" spelled out in white letters on a rich blue background in perfect harmony with Illinois blue statehood.
The signage was apropos for two reasons. First, it was important for foreign tourists from Iowa and Wisconsin (and other daring short-cutters) to be able to put a face on the subject of their road rage.
So, when those motorists mumbled and swore about having to pay a fee to drive through Illinois, they had somebody to blame.
The other reason Blagojevich's name was so fitting on those signs was that he and the tollway had identical functions in life: pay to play.
The ex-governor, as a jury recently determined, required money to be dropped into his campaign toll basket by people wishing to get to where they wanted to go in Illinois.
Just as former Gov. Blagojevich and his cronies once required of a racetrack owner and a hospital CEO, the tollways require the same of motorists: if you want to proceed, pay up. If not, the light stays red. Maybe if Mr. Blagojevich had used that business-as-usual analogy as his defense, he would have gotten off.
Alas, Blagojevich's pay-to-play was illegal, and he will be spending time in prison because of it. Some of his political toll collectors, including businessman Tony Rezko and former governor-staffers Lon Monk and John Harris, will be prison mates.
But the Illinois tollways roll on, even though they were never intended to live in perpetuity. When the state's first pay-to-drive roads were opened in 1958, the promise was to collect enough nickels and dimes to pay off the loans taken to build the roads.
Of course, like every good tax, that never happened. Now there are new bonds, new roads, new costs, new executives and soon, new higher tolls if the Tollway Authority has its way. A near doubling of tolls was part of a grand plan announced last week.
In the beginning, 53 years ago, there were probably those who actually believed the tolls would someday disappear and the roads would become freeways.
Now that the tollway beast, fed by coins and credit cards, lives in a nice glass house in Downers Grove and has grown into the state's most impressive auto-cracy, it is with us forever.
Forget about the fact that we already pay taxes and fees to build and maintain roads. That argument went out with the 1960s.
The last state official to float the idea of doing away with tollways was Gov. George Ryan — and he never got around to it.
The tollway system has become a bottomless pit of power and perks, propped up by money and jobs.
The tollway employee head count stands at 1,598, according to figures in its $680 million "streamlined" budget for 2011.
There are 576 workers assigned to the engineering department, who are in charge of roadway planning, construction and maintenance.
The largest department is "toll operations" with 684 employees. They are the people who collect your money and count it. Many toll collectors make more than $50,000 per year, according to state payroll records.
A total of 338 employees are required to manage what the tollway does, overseen by Executive Director Kristi Lafleur, who is paid a salary of $161,774. The tollway authority's chief engineer makes at least $160,000, according to state records, and other top deputies are in the strata of $140,000-150,000 per year.
The best evidence that the Illinois tollways are not going away anytime soon came last year with the creation of the agency's own inspector general's office to keep an eye on waste, fraud and corruption. The new inspector general is Jim Wagner, a former organized crime supervisor at the FBI in Chicago.
On one hand, as former chief investigator for the state Gaming Board and onetime head of the Chicago Crime Commission, Wagner is especially adept at sniffing out scams and schemes. On the other hand, considering the toll road's sordid history, he could have a job for life if they let him.
As the Illinois tollway evolves, it is destined to become less visible. Someday soon the human toll agents will be completely gone and you will whiz along the Reagan, Addams, Tri-State, and others with invisible, electronic toll collectors withdrawing fees from your bank account like cat burglars. When that happens, remember who first pushed "Overhead Tolling" in Illinois, allowing motorists to keep on moving even as their tolls are being collected.
It was Rod Blagojevich, who obviously saw the wisdom in taking money when nobody is looking.
Maybe they should name a tollway after him. That way those signs with his name on them could be put to good use. And perhaps the tollway authority could add the state's updated motto: "Land of Lincoln Rolling Over in his Grave."
Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed at twitter.com/ChuckGoudie
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