From the industrial sprawl at the Indiana border to the bucolic Lake County greenery that signals the approach of Wisconsin, the Tri-State Tollway (I-94/I-294/I-80) tells the story of Chicago's suburbs.
You pass through hardscrabble Harvey in the south suburbs, watch airplanes descend to O'Hare over Bensenville and glimpse affluent Lake Forest.
Eighteen-wheelers, RVs and passenger cars jog along the 84-mile stretch, paying the tolls that make the Tri-State the system's top breadwinner.
That's right. The Reagan Memorial (I-88), Jane Addams (I-90) and Veterans Memorial (I-355) can't hold a candle to the moneymaking power of the mighty Tri-State.
The four toll roads raked in $652.7 million in 2011, according to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. Here's the breakdown:
• King of the road is the busy Tri-State, producing $297.6 million in tolls, or 46 percent of the total;
• I-90 follows with $133.6 million;
• I-355 is third with $115 million;
• And, I-88 trails with $106.5 million.
You should note that the tollway's 2011 budget was $680 million -- which begs the question, does the Tri-State subsidize the rest of the system?
It's something to consider as the tollway gets set for a June 28 discussion on the pros and cons of absorbing a Route 53 extension into the system.
That project extending Route 53 from Lake-Cook Road to Route 120 will cost at least $2 billion. The new Route 53 could generate anything from $40 million to $95 million in tolls annually, according to preliminary estimates from an advisory group.
"All of the tollways lose money except for the Tri-State," former tollway director and state senator Bill Morris said. "The Tri-State pays for everything."
But Illinois State Toll Highway Authority officials did not release data on how much each road costs to maintain.
"The Tollway does not have a document or easily compiled records reflecting the total cost of operating and maintaining each roadway segment individually," a Freedom of Information Act officer wrote. "The information necessary to provide an accounting of operating expenses by roadway is not available on our accounting system, and as such, we are unable to accurately and definitively identify total costs associated with each individual roadway."
Fine, then, here are some numbers that I tossed around.
The Tri-State covers 84 miles, or 28 percent of the 286-mile system; the Reagan is 96 miles or 34 percent; the Jane Addams is 76 miles or 27 percent; and I-355 is 30 miles or 11 percent. You could argue this means the Tri-State requires about 28 percent of the budget, yet it's contributing 46 percent. Au contraire, officials said. That's not the way to think of the tollway.
"The Tollway operates as a system. Each road is not expected to operate independently," agency spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said via email. "In fact, the tollway is required to pass an annual budget that provides for the system of roadways as a whole, rather than itemized budgets for each individual roadway.
"Toll revenue is collected and dispersed as needed to support the system. The Tri-State Tollway generates the most toll revenue for the system, as you indicated. However, the higher toll rates and costs to construct the I-355 south extension and other new roadways will need to be offset by revenue from the rest of the Tollway system for many years to come."
Morris, who got booted from the tollway board by Gov. Pat Quinn after he voted against a toll increase, said suburbanites get hit twice -- by fuel taxes that provide funding for state highways and by tolls. He advocates IDOT taking over sections of toll roads that don't make money in downstate Illinois, but acknowledges it would be politically unlikely.
"Why do Chicago and downstate not pay for expressways while the suburbs do?" he asked.
Toll expert Christopher Poe, assistant director at the Texas Transportation Institute, said it's "desirable to have toll roads be self-sufficient ... to get a return on the investment by the taxpayers or bond financiers who put up the money to build the road (and) to pay for ongoing maintenance throughout the life of the toll road."
So what do you think about Tri-State revenues? Drop me a line at
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The CTA is hosting open houses on its bus rapid transit plans for Western and Ashland avenues. One upcoming forum runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Lane Tech High School, 2501 W. Addison St., Chicago.
Watch out Elgin. The ramp from eastbound Route 20 to McLean Boulevard will shut down today for five days. Detours will be posted and traffic will be directed to the Randall Road exit. The $9.8 million project will completely rebuild the interchange.[/URL]