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Article updated: 1/4/2013 4:01 PM

Illinois tollway revenue up in 2012, despite boycott threats

By Marni Pyke

They swore to boycott the Illinois tollway after rates spiked in 2012, but everything from bad weather to kamikaze deer to sheer convenience kept many drivers on toll roads last year.

Tollway transactions for passenger vehicles shrunk in 2012 as drivers tried to escape higher rates. Yet, the agency still received a 42 percent boost in revenues, data from January through November shows.

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority nearly doubled fees for passenger vehicles on Jan. 1, 2012, to pay for a massive road building program. The toll hike caused numerous drivers to threaten to take other routes, but the percentage of decline for passenger vehicles was only 4 percent, dipping from 682 million transactions for the first 11 months of 2011 to 655 million in 2012.

Local drivers who pledged in 2012 to avoid the tollways and save money showed mixed resolve as the months wore on.

Bruno Melone of Arlington Heights did his best to keep off the tollways in 2012.

"Just like death and taxes, it's not possible to avoid them 100 percent, but I try," he explained. "For example, I've found taking Higgins Road between Schaumburg and O'Hare International Airport is a great way to avoid I-90 (the Jane Addams Tollway)."

But Lake County resident Pam Eidmann, who swore off the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) between Route 173 and Grand Avenue, found it cost her. "In my effort to save a few dollars a day, I totaled my car by hitting a deer in the predawn darkness on my way to work on Hunt Club Road," she said in an email.

"Needless to say, it wasn't worth it to make that effort and I am now scared to death of driving unlit back-roads in the dark. I am back on the tollway and my iPass costs have doubled."

Toll increases of 35 cents up to 70 cents at plazas more than compensated for those drivers who did stay away. Revenues January through November of 2011 totaled $600 million compared to an estimated $850 million for the same time period in 2012 -- a 42 percent spike. Overall, transactions for cars and trucks went from 765 million in 2011 to 740 million in 2012, a 3.3 percent decrease.

Tollway planners initially estimated passenger vehicle transactions would drop by 5.9 percent.

"We hope that the greater-than-expected number of transactions is an indication that our customers continue to believe that the tollway is a good value for the money," spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said.

Randall Ballschmiede of West Dundee gave himself high marks for skirting toll roads in 2012 but acknowledged that he'll give in during bad weather.

"I will give the toll road one thing, if and when it snows they do a great job of cleaning up and rarely does traffic become a problem," Ballschmiede added.

Mike Marchese of North Aurora pledged in early 2012 to boycott the Tri-State, Reagan Memorial (I-88) and Veterans Memorial (I-355) Tollways to avoid paying $2.10 more a day.

So far, "I used the tollway to get to the Sox home opener in April, as I had a van full of fans. I also used it over the summer to rush my daughter to the hospital. Other than those instances, I stuck to my guns and swore off the Illinois Tollway system," he said.

Meanwhile, Arlington Heights resident Sandy Hoffman eliminated driving on I-355 by using arterial routes such as Swift Road and Route 83.

"I have found it's actually less stressful getting off the 'speedways' and slowing down a bit," she said. "I love it."

The tollway's construction program, dubbed Move Illinois, will pay for extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, building an interchange at I-57 and I-294 and widening I-90.

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