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updated: 8/18/2011 9:58 PM

Illinois toll increases will create jobs, proponents say

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Foes of toll increases squared off against proponents of job creation Thursday at the Illinois tollway's first hearings into a controversial $12 billion, 15-year capital plan.

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is proposing raising rates by 35 cents to 45 cents at most toll plazas to fund road maintenance and new construction.

"This plan would not only attract business and investment ... it will move people more quickly through the region," Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said.

Not everyone agreed.

"If the toll increases are approved, many, many suburban households will soon be paying thousands of dollars a year in tolls for the same services that are free downstate," Glen Ellyn resident Charles Murphy said.

More than 200 people packed a hearing in Wheaton, while about 80 attended one in Geneva.

The proposal entails hikes of 35 cents at 40-cent plazas, 45 cents at 50-cent plazas, and increases at ramps ranging from 15 cents to 45 cents. On the high end, that could mean an I-PASS customer commuting daily from Arlington Heights to Lombard on I-355 and using tolled access ramps would pay $1.35 more a day, or $337.50 a year, assuming two weeks of vacation.

In Wheaton, the crowd, which included local mayors, state officials, labor union members, plus the construction and engineering industry, was largely in support of the plan.

The tollway has estimated about 120,000 jobs would be created as a result. "This will increase jobs when unemployment is at an all-time high," said Terri Barnett, an official with the Service Employees Union Local 43.

"This is one of the most affordable toll systems in the nation," said John Brining, executive director of the Construction Industry Service Corp. in Oak Brook. "The tollway is based on user fees, you don't have to use it -- it's your choice."

The plan includes $8 billion to maintain and repair existing roads, and to widen the Jane Addams Tollway between O'Hare International Airport and Rockford. The other $4 billion would pay for an interchange at I-57 and the Tri-State Tollway in the South suburbs, to extend the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east into the airport, and build a bypass around the western edge of O'Hare connecting with the Tri-State to the south and I-90 to the north.

It also would include studies on expanding Route 53 north into Lake County and constructing the Illiana Expressway, connecting I-55 near Joliet to I-65 in Indiana.

"On behalf of unemployed construction workers, let's build this thing," said John Boske, president of the DuPage County Building and Construction Trades Council, referring to the Elgin-O'Hare.

But Wheaton resident Clifford Bryers was unconvinced.

"I question if the plan presented serves us the tollway users or supports the political purpose of creating jobs. The tollway board's purpose is not to create jobs," he said.

Wheaton resident Eleanor Mazza called the hearing "biased" and said the toll increase would make her boycott the system. "It's not a good idea," she said.

Mark Stern of Wheaton said he feared the agency was "a political dumping ground," noting that tolls paid to erect signs at plazas with convicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich's name and to take them down when he was ousted.

Bensenville Mayor Frank Soto said the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway would lead to significant economic development as well as transportation improvements.

"This is a game changer for the economy," he said.

Other local mayors, while in full support of the project, had concerns about the potential of funding some of the work with local taxes and about the future of a western terminal at O'Hare.

The western terminal is an integral part of economic development plans tied to the Elgin-O'Hare extension; however, the city of Chicago has cooled to the proposal in the face of opposition from American and United airlines.

In Geneva, the hearing was so crowded it required an overflow room.

State Rep. Kay Hatcher, a Yorkville Republican, complained that misinformation about the meeting's time discouraged turnout.

"This disenfranchises the very people you say you want to hear from," Hatcher said.

She asked the tollway to come up with a "better face-to-face" way for people in her district to participate.

Tollway Director Bill Morris of Grayslake has recommended an alternative to the official plan, suggesting a 15-cent boost at 40-cent toll plazas with corresponding increases elsewhere. This would cover a 10-year capital plan and allow work to start on the Elgin-O'Hare and interchange projects. Morris' proposal also suggests reviewing toll rates every three years with the assumption that increases would be likely.

He thanked the crowd in Geneva for their opinions, adding "hopefully we get some of it (input) not just from special interest people. We hope there are some regular people here today."

• Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this report.

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