If building roads weren't enough, the Illinois tollway now is authorized to construct railway tracks and charge fees for their use, under recently approved legislation.
Tollway leaders called the new law an "exciting opportunity" Thursday but downplayed the possibility of any immediate action, such as resurrecting the moribund suburb-to-suburb STAR line.
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"It's just the authorization -- there's no immediate plans," Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said. "Certainly we could do any number of things."
The law gives the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority power to design and construct railroad tracks and charge access fees to passenger or freight operators who use them subject to the governor's approval.
The change may seem like a stretch for an agency charged with running toll roads. But supporters said it makes sense in the case of the soon-to-be widened Jane Addams Tollway (I-90), where plans to build a parallel commuter railway line have fallen by the wayside because of a funding shortfall.
It's also a tool to expand high-speed rail in Illinois, one advocate thinks.
"There's an incredible economic corridor that goes from Chicago to O'Hare to Schaumburg to Hoffman Estates, Elgin and Rockford," Midwest High Speed Rail Executive Director Rick Harnish said. "If you take each of those individually it adds up to an incredibly powerful service.
"Leaders along the corridor have recognized that you need high quality train service to better tie those assets (together). It makes sense for the toll road to construct, design and finance the railroad infrastructure to create the rail service."
Lafleur said the agency is focused on collaborating with Pace to integrate bus rapid transit along the I-90 corridor now. "In the near term, it's buses," she said. The law "gives us flexibility to study it or make some provision for rail in the future." Lafleur previously served as chairman of the Midwest High Speed Rail Steering Committee.
Only four state senators voted against the plan, among them Republican Chris Lauzen of Aurora.
"I think the majority of my constituents do not want further expansion of the tollway authority," he said. "They saw what happened -- with nearly doubling of tolls (in January 2012) -- and had nothing to say about it because these are appointed positions. A toll is just another word for a tax."
Should the tollway decide to get into the railway business, it will need the approval of the governor for each and any project. Gov. Pat Quinn, who signed the law in August, is an enthusiastic backer of high-speed rail.
But state Rep. Michael Fortner, a West Chicago Republican and a sponsor of the legislation, noted that "it really just adds an option -- if they are interested in seeing if railway tracks go out to I-90 as part of rail to Rockford, it puts that option on the table."
He added that the law is "not designed to have the people who pay tolls on the roads pay for any of these (railway) projects. That's why there's a provision in the law to charge fees either to freight or passenger rail (operators) that use it."
Lafleur added that "we haven't looked at how we would implement a project yet -- it's not something that's imminently on the horizon." The agency also would need to work out how to finance projects and "the segregation of funds for rail versus funds we collect from the toll system."
As it works on new projects like the Jane Addams expansion and the east extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, the tollway has emphasized integrating access to transit. The law, Lafleur said, "gives us more flexibility to integrate additional transit seamlessly. It's an exciting new opportunity (but) there's a lot of details that need to be worked out."