Government agencies talk a lot these days about increasing efficiency, doing more with less, scraping by on nothing, etc., etc.
On paper, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority gets a gold medal for doing more with less.
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Head count has dipped from 1,751 employees in 2006 to 1,595 this year.
How do they do it? I wondered as I whizzed through the Army Trail Toll Plaza, my I-PASS busy deducting 95 cents.
Oh. Yes ... the I-PASS.
"The authority's workforce has been shrinking over recent years ... driven primarily by changes in toll operations," a 2011 report by The PFM Group stated. The tollway consultants cited a decline of 15 percent from 1,778 employees in December 2008 to 1,517 employees in March 2011.
That means as the agency converted to electronic tolling in the 2000s, related jobs dwindled. Between 2004 and 2012, 161 toll collector positions were eliminated, according to information from a FOIA request.
The average salary of a toll collector was $43,434 in 2012 and a senior toll collector made $51,650.
But even though the workforce shrunk from 1,751 in 2006 to 1,595 this year, spending is still up. In 2006, the authority spent $80.5 million on salaries and wages compared to a budgeted $88.7 million this year (not including sworn state police officers).
That means although there are 9 percent fewer employees, salaries and wages are 10 percent higher.
Meanwhile, the tollway's engineering department is growing as the agency ramps up its 15-year, $12 billion road building program, Move Illinois.
The department tally went from 571 in 2006 to a projected 605 in 2013. Not surprisingly, typical salaries for professional engineers are higher than toll collectors: An executive project engineer earns $112,000, a senior project engineer makes $96,000, and a materials engineer makes $90,000 annually, according to 2011 numbers.
So does this mean that gold medal for doing more with less is closer to an honorable mention?
"Since 2010, the tollway has worked to minimize employee costs," spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said. "The tollway has found $14 million of recurring savings and $62 million in one-time or multiyear savings as part of the 2010, 2011 and 2012 budgets. In 2011, we reduced the agency's operating budget for the first time in the tollway's history."
Among those savings, she cited $994,000 in lower credit card fees; $1.8 million in reduced utility bills due to energy conservation; $2.9 million by using outside companies for I-PASS services like violation processing; and $2.3 million related to a new transponder contract.
The agency also has required employees to contribute to their health care premiums for the first time, and made changes to the group health insurance that should net about $952,000 annually.
I asked if the authority could save money by hiring engineering consultants, which would avoid pension obligations in the future.
Move Illinois is "a long-term capital program" and "there are certain job functions that will be consistently needed over the life of the program that can and should be done internally," Abrams said in an email.
"By bringing many positions in-house, we estimate saving nearly $1 million annually over the life of the Move Illinois. In some cases, it makes sense to have consultants on board to meet the full demands of the program for design and construction management ... or for key functions that require specific knowledge."
However, former tollway Director Bill Morris of Grayslake disagreed.
"Maybe there is a $1 million annual savings going full time rather than with contract employees, but with pension costs increasing at nearly double digits annually that number may also be questionable," he said. "The capital program will have the long-term impact of expanding the full-time employee base and thus pension costs of the tollway." So, what happened to those 161 toll collector jobs and are they destined to be an extinct species?
Based on current traffic data, staffing levels are appropriate given the existing manual toll collection needs, Abrams said. In the past, toll collector positions have been eliminated primarily through attrition and a small number of layoffs, she added.
Representatives with the Service Employees International Union, Local 73, declined to comment because of ongoing negotiations.
One more thing
The PFM Group reported there were 1,517 employees at the tollway in March 2011. But official tollway numbers put that head count to 1,598 in 2011 and 2012. What gives?
The 1,598 figure was the agency's budgeted head count and represents head count if all positions were filled, Abrams said. The PFM number of 1,517 represents "on board" head count and represents the number of employees currently on the agency's payroll. On board head count will fluctuate from time to time.
Overall, "the economic condition in the state has changed, which influence the decisions we make about employee pay, consistent with the market. Since 2010, the tollway has worked to minimize employee costs. For example, for toll collectors, prior agreements provided annual increases averaging 4.4 percent, while the most recent agreement reduced annual increases to an average of 1.9 percent, while also increasing employee contributions to health care costs," she said.
Morris, who was on the board in 2011, said he advocated holding staffing at the 1,517 number. "The staff felt they needed authorization for an extra 50 to 60 positions for flexibility going forward and the budget and board agreed. At the time I was unaware the staff was planning a major toll increase for a major tollway expansion and probably wanted spots to add engineers and technicians even though they were eliminating toll collectors," he noted.
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Wacky retired scientist (his words) Fred Dix of Arlington Heights offered a critique of my recent article on Argonne's pursuit of a better battery. Have at it, Fred.
"You state that everyone wants to reduce dependence on foreign oil, and one way to do that is with alternate energy such as wind or solar power," Dix wrote. "Actually, since very little of our electricity is produced from oil, more wind or solar would not impact foreign (or domestic) oil. Instead, it would reduce the use of coal and nuclear -- which might be even more important when you consider their health and safety risks."
Dix went on to cite a quote from an Argonne scientist that until electric batteries can be charged in five minutes, they will never compete with gasoline. "The bigger issue here is cost rather than time," he said. "Let me try a hypothetical example: Suppose you are buying your next car and you have a choice of a gasoline car that costs $60 to fill the tank -- in five minutes. The alternative is an electric car that is just like it, except that it takes five hours to fully charge the battery. But the key difference is that the electricity costs only $20 instead of $60 for gasoline. Well, it would take me less than five minutes to make that decision!
"Now maybe you think that I'm just some wacky retired scientist, who likes to drive around in a Prius. Well, the truth is that I am a wacky retired scientist (physics) who drives around in a Prius (red)."
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