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updated: 8/23/2011 5:25 AM

As rate hike looms, tollway workers get free I-PASS

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  • I-PASS users will be paying more if the Illinois tollway board approves a rate increase this week.

      I-PASS users will be paying more if the Illinois tollway board approves a rate increase this week.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer


Employees of the Illinois tollway are one group of commuters that won't feel the sting of proposed rate hikes on daily trips to and from work.

Illinois State Toll Highway Authority leaders could vote this week on raising fees for I-PASS users in cars by 35 cents to 45 cents at most toll plazas to pay for a 15-year, $12 billion capital plan.

About 73 percent of agency employees -- 1,159 out of 1,598 -- don't pay tolls on the way to and from work. The tollway issues nonrevenue transponders to staffers for commuting and official business but the devices are not allowed for personal use.

In August 2010, 1,344 tollway employees had nonrevenue transponders costing the agency $228,957 a year.

Tollway watchdog state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat, is critical of the perk.

"If the tollway is asking people to pay more to use their roads, they have to find a way to ensure that they are doing everything they can to make the necessary cuts," she said Monday.

"It's a false argument if you ask others to pay more but are not cutting back in easy ways."

Tollway officials said they are collecting data on employee use of the devices and promised to raise the issue of nonrevenue transponders at a future finance committee meeting.

"Our sense is that once we have the employee usage data and our board reviews the policy, nonrevenue transponder usage may not continue," Director of Communications Wendy Abrams said in an email.

"Before we could even think about asking our customers to pay more, we worked hard to ensure that we were being as responsible as we could be with the finances we have."

The agency reduced its 2011 budget by 4 percent and has saved $62 million with one-time and multiyear efficiencies along with $14 million in annual recurring cuts, Abrams said.

The proposed toll increases are promoted as a way to generate enough money for the tollway to borrow $12 billion to maintain and improve existing roads and build new ones. The projects include: widening the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) from O'Hare International Airport to Rockford; extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east to the airport and constructing a bypass around the western end of O'Hare linking with the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) to the south and I-90 to the north; and building an interchange at I-57 and the Tri-State.

Tollway board Director Bill Morris of Grayslake has offered up a 10-year-capital plan that would entail a 15-cent increase now and likely hikes in the future to accomplish the interchange and Elgin-O'Hare projects.

Asked for his opinion on the transponders, Morris said, "I would prefer that tollway employees not have free transponders and we could figure out a way to accomplish that." The current practice "causes the public not to have complete confidence that we're running the most efficient operation possible," he said.

"I don't think the tollway should subsidize commuting," Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said in August 2010.