More trees, no passenger-car toll hikes, a toll app and open minds on the Route 53 extension.
As they close in on a year since joining the Illinois tollway, Chairman Bob Schillerstrom and Executive Director Greg Bedalov spoke to the Daily Herald last week about goals and priorities.
Gov. Bruce Rauner put his own stamp on the agency last June, moving Schillerstrom and Bedalov to leadership roles. One of their first challenges is the controversial extension of Route 53 into Lake County.
The new tollway board agreed in late 2015 to fund a $40 million to $50 million environmental impact study, but that doesn't mean the expansion is a done deal, the two said. A plan endorsed by Lake County leaders envisions a 45 mph, four-lane parkway, but an estimated shortfall of nearly $2 billion is one stumbling block.
"There is no assumptive role or assumptive road the tollway has its mind set on," said Bedalov, former CEO of a DuPage County economic development group. "We will do an investigation to determine if the extension is the best solution to (traffic) congestion. We'll look at all the other alternatives and other roads."
Asked if the 45 mph parkway plan is carved in stone, Schillerstrom said: "We're not really starting with any preconditions. Clearly, it's one of the options we'll look at, but we'll look at a whole lot other of options. (Should) it be built like that, or built some other way, or not built?"
Both said they want to shake up the traditional manicured turf on tollway rights of way and plant an "urban forest," working with the Morton Arboretum to determine what trees are best suited.
"We've got a lot of land. We want to see what can we do to make the tollway more visually appealing and environmentally friendly," Bedalov said.
The days of generic grass "are going to change," Schillerstrom said. "We want to make the tollway look more like Illinois."
The agency is installing new technology this summer that will allow upgrades to its website, such as letting drivers look up missed tolls using license plates, which isn't possible now.
Another possibility is the ability to issue text alerts if a customer gets a new credit card but it isn't tied to their I-PASS account, for example, Bedalov said.
The tollway will open its first all-electronic road July 5 when an improved portion of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway/Route 390 debuts as a toll road.
"Eighty-seven percent of our revenues come electronically," Schillerstrom said. "The ultimate goal is to have the tollway be 100 percent all-electronic. Sometime soon, we want people to be able to pay tolls with their smartphones. ... We're not there yet, but we're trying to put the infrastructure in place."
Asked if drivers of passenger vehicles can anticipate higher tolls in the future, Bedalov said there's no provisions in the current 15-year, $12 billion building program to increase rates.
"Nor any plan," Schillerstrom added.