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updated: 8/29/2011 9:03 AM

Tollway boycott? I-PASS hard habit to break, officials say

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  • A toll hike going into effect Jan. 1 has some drivers pledging to find alternative routes. Tollway officials, however, think the loss of paying customers will be minimal and, in many cases, temporary.

       A toll hike going into effect Jan. 1 has some drivers pledging to find alternative routes. Tollway officials, however, think the loss of paying customers will be minimal and, in many cases, temporary.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Video: 'Take It Easy'

 
 

Does a tollway hike in January mean thousands of I-PASS users flocking to alternate routes to avoid paying more at tolled ramps and plazas?

Illinois State Toll Highway Authority officials don't think so.

But one I-PASS devotee who uses I-88 to get from Aurora to work in Naperville said "Diehl Road, here I come!" minutes after the tollway board of directors voted Thursday to increase rates to pay for a $12 billion roads program.

Another vowed to take Route 83 instead of I-355 on the daily commute between Lombard and Arlington Heights. It was a choice of spending 15 minutes more on the drive or paying roughly $300 more a year.

The increase means tolls will jump from between 35 and 45 cents at a majority of plazas, while most ramp costs will spike anywhere from 15 to 45 cents.

The extra cash will allow the agency to borrow billions to repave existing roads over the next 15 years and approach some significant new construction. That includes: extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east to the airport and building a western bypass around O'Hare connecting with I-90 and the Tri-State; constructing an interchange at I-57 and the Tri-State; and widening I-90 between Rockford and O'Hare.

Tollway leaders said they accounted for boycotts in formulating the capital plan.

Traffic congestion studies showed "there is likely to be a small drop-off in traffic on the tollway," Chairman Paula Wolff said. "If history is any teacher, people do come back very quickly to the tollway -- they like the service, they like the operation, they like saving time."

The rate hike may take a while to sink in for I-PASS users accustomed to breezing through tolled exits and entrances, unlike in the past when throwing change in a bucket was a constant reminder of the cost of driving.

If the increase is incremental and there's a positive benefit to show, it won't have a huge impact, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign economist Fred Giertz said.

But Joseph Schofer, Northwestern University professor of civil and environmental engineering, noted that "it's simple economics. If you raise the price, people will look for ways to moderate the effect of the increase to the extent they'll find alternatives that they'll use."

The Illinois Department of Transportation, for one, has no worries about extra cars piling on to state routes such as Route 53, Route 83 or Algonquin Road that parallel certain tollways. The agency is not anticipating an increase, a spokesman said.

Is parting with your I-PASS like parting with your cellphone? Or do you plan to put a stake through its heart Jan. 1? Let me know at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

No contest

And the winner of our road trip song contest is "Take it Easy," by the Eagles, nominated by Barbara Phillips of Arlington Heights who takes home some fabulous prizes, including a Best Buy gift certificate. She loves the song because, "my siblings and I belted out the 'do do do' on an exciting road trip to California sans parents, back in the day," she wrote. "Great memories."

Second place went to "Runnin' Down a Dream," and third place was "American Pie." Fourth place was split by the bizarre trio of "The Rainbow Connection," "On the Road Again" and "Born to be Wild."

Thanks to all who participated in the Best Road Trip Song Ever contest. For the "Radar Love" fans, I can only say, "there's a voice in my head that drives my heel."

And that voice says stay tuned for the Worst Pothole in the Region contest in 2012.

Coming soon

As of Thursday, Senior Ride Free permits will no longer be accepted on Metra, Pace or the CTA. Instead, the transit agencies are switching to a two-tiered system. Low-income seniors are eligible for what's known as Circuit Ride Free permits, which allow them to ride without paying. All others age 65 and older qualify for Reduced Fare cards, meaning tickets are roughly half-price. The Regional Transportation Authority mailed replacement cards in July, but I've heard from a few seniors who fell through the cracks.

And, when I tried the customer service line at (312) 913-3110, it kept ringing. The second time, I was put on hold. RTA spokeswoman Diane Palmer said the agency has increased staffing at the call center. She advised callers to dial zero if they hear a recording.

One important note: To be eligible for the Circuit Ride Free permits, you'll need to have enrolled previously in the state's Circuit Breaker program. For information, visit cbrx.il.gov.

Gridlock alert

For a change, here's a look at construction on the rails as opposed to the roads. Metra will start construction on the Union Pacific North Line soon, replacing bridges and rebuilding the Ravenswood Station. Rush-hour service will continue as normal but midday, night and weekend delays are likely. For more information, check out metrarail.com.

Your voice (junior version)

This is a shout-out to all the grade, middle and high school students who competed in Metra's Safety Contest. Local first-place winners include: second-grader Adrien Mehra of Naperville, fifth-grader Jasmine Meza of Bloomingdale, eighth-grader Alexi Zwerenz of Elgin, 11th-grader Youna Jang of Hoffman Estates and 12th-grader Grant Parry of Cary.

Tollway outtakes

So much left to write about regarding the tollway's rate increase and so little time. Here are two tidbits:

• When the agency announced Gov. Pat Quinn's appointment of Bill Morris as tollway director two years ago, the news release touted his expertise as a municipal financial specialist. It was that background that allowed Morris, of Grayslake, to come up with a detailed counterpoint to the official toll hike plan, proposing a more modest 15-cent increase. Morris' Plan B became something of a thorn in the side for administrators, who ended up rebutting his ideas with a PowerPoint beat down and flurry of memos. "It's my job to raise issues," Morris said.

• Maybe it was the heat in the room or the heat of the topic, but a speaker at a tollway hearing Tuesday in Montgomery fell seriously ill. He received immediate medical attention from Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Juan Morales, Trooper Kevin McGrenera and tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis, who used defibrillators to save his life. The man was resting comfortably in a hospital as of Thursday.

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