Tollway director answers questions on giant toll hikes
Drivers on the Tri-State Tollway in Illinois should carry more coins or top off their I-PASS accounts with rate hikes going into effect today.
Bill Zars | Staff Photographer
Thinking of running over your I-PASS with the advent of higher tolls today?
Many drivers will experience some financial pain with rates nearly doubling for both I-PASS and cash-paying customers. A toll that was previously 40 cents is now 75 cents for an I-PASS user, for instance. A former 50-cent toll is now 95 cents for an I-PASS user.
The fee hike will fund a $12 billion construction program dubbed Move Illinois that includes: improvements to existing tollways; extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east and building a western bypass around O'Hare International Airport; building an interchange at the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) and I-57; widening the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90); and studying the extension of Route 53 north through Lake County.
The Daily Herald spoke with Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Executive Director Kristi Lafleur about the rate increase and related issues. Here's what she had to say.
Q. Why is the tollway instituting such a significant toll increase in these tough economic times?
A. The tollway board members certainly considered it (the economy). But there were clearly identified capital needs not just for the existing system but for new infrastructure in this part of the state to really manage congestion. Congestion stifles the economy, it costs us a lot of money and is frustrating to drivers.
To make those capital investments and to keep our existing system in a state of good repair, we needed to have a toll increase. When 75 percent of your customers pay what they paid in 1983, it's a long time to go without an increase.
Q. The tollway is looking at putting congestion pricing, also known as managed lanes or dynamic pricing, on the Jane Addams Tollway. That could mean paying more for an express lane or instituting something like a carpool lane where vehicles with more than one occupant pay less. Can you explain more?
A. There are countless scenarios for congestion pricing, but no decisions have been made.
The population of this region will increase by 2.5 million people by 2040. We can't just keep adding lanes and lanes to our interstates and highway system. It's not reasonable to think we could keep up with that and keep things flowing in an uncongested way.
We need to look at innovative ways to leverage the capacity of our system. If some of that is to include 15 percent of drivers who don't have to travel at rush hour, or if some of that is to give customers choices so they could take bus service, or to do additional testing of truck-pricing differentials — we have to explore all those opportunities.
Q. At public hearings this summer, the issue of congestion pricing on I-90 never came up. Isn't that disingenuous if you institute another increase for an express lane, for example?
A. If we did some type of differential pricing that was different from what was discussed in the public hearings, we would have a very open discussion about those changes and what our customers could expect in return for those changes. For example — are there additional improvements we could deliver, are there additional travel-time improvements, or would there be more consistency in travel times? We would have that open discussion so people would be clear about what any changes meant for them.
Q. Tollway officials say they intend to consider untolled access ramps in 2012. Does this mean those ramps will have tolls in the future?
A. It's definitely something we need to look at, especially with people paying more for tolls — we need to make sure everyone is paying their fair share. It is a user-fee facility, and we count on user fees to pay for the roads.
There's a big difference from someone who has a free ride and is able get on and get off the tollway and not pay any toll — versus someone who gets off at an exit or entrance untolled but just paid a toll before getting off or will pay almost immediately after. It's two different things. Although they're called untolled ramps, what we'll focus on is these free movements on the system where people drive without paying anything. It's a matter of doing the analysis of where the new toll-collection point needs to be to make sure you're capturing a toll on that movement.
Q. In December, the electronic toll collection system experienced a malfunction causing about 5,000 people to have erroneous charges or debits on their I-PASS accounts. Can you promise that won't happen again, especially given the increase in tolls?
A. I can't promise that. I can say we've improved the management of (the toll collection computer system).
We've been clear that we need to develop a new toll collection system. The tollway was on the cutting edge when we implemented open road tolling (in 2005) and built our electronic toll collection system, but it's reached the capacity of what it can do, particularly with flexibility.
When we think of putting in an Elgin-O'Hare expansion that's all-electronic, you need to be able to test out different business rules. For example, do certain ways of treating violations work better when people are not given a cash option to pay? Does it need to be seven days to pay or 10 days? Does it need to be that someone gets a bill with a slight surcharge if they haven't a transponder and haven't paid instead of a violation notice for $20 if you miss three tolls? We need to be able to do that, and I can't say with our present system we can make those changes.
But it is a system that handles billions of transactions a year.
Now we're going through the process of learning about technologies that will help us develop specifications and to request proposals to find a vendor that will work with us on developing a new system. Then we'll need to test these technologies to make sure they perform the way the company says they'll perform.
Q. What construction will occur in 2012?
A. There's a lot of engineering. We are starting some advance work on the I-90 project, particularly with bridges.
There's also the I-90 and Route 47 interchange. We would love to see how much we can deliver in a one-year period. With the I-294 and I-57 interchange, there will be some preliminary design, but we're also starting some construction. We're also doing some work on I-88, so it's across the system.
Q. What's next?
A. We need to think about not what the tollway will look like in five years, but what the tollway and the region will look like in 20 years. That's our core responsibility, to meet the demands of the region 15 to 20 years from now.
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