Illinois looks to convert freeways to tollways

Years ago, drivers paid to construct the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and Route 53 with tax dollars. Now they'll be paying again, this time with tolls in the case of the Elgin-O'Hare, and perhaps also with Route 53.

Converting freeways to tollways is a national phenomenon coming home to Illinois. Backers say a user-pay system is the only way to fund infrastructure with depleted federal and state financing.

But some Illinois government watchdogs who remember that the toll system was supposed to be temporary are crying foul.

"It's setting up a scenario that financially doesn't benefit consumers in the long run," said Terry Pastika, executive director of the watchdog Citizen Advocacy Center.

Here's a look at the two projects:

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is moving forward to extend the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east to the airport, where they'll also build a western bypass.

When the project is built, folks who used the existing freeway between Hanover Park and Itasca will pay about 20 cents a mile in tolls - the same rate to be applied to the new part. That's a significant difference from the rest of the system, where the average toll rate is 6 cents a mile.

It's a necessary evil to raise money so the Illinois tollway can build the road, officials say. And, the old expressway segment will be improved and widened with new interchanges.

Now let's switch roads. The Illinois tollway is studying whether it wants to undertake extending Route 53 north into Lake County, a controversial proposal that's been around since Neanderthal suburban man (almost). A blue ribbon committee tasked with finding a route that's acceptable will make recommendations this month.

It is likely committee members will suggest that the existing part of Route 53 between I-90 and Lake-Cook Road be tolled to help pay for the project. Rates are estimated to be 20 cents a mile on the existing part of Route 53 as well as the new.

Converting a freeway into a tollway, you ask? Is that legal? Yes, and here's how it would work.

First, there must be improvements and reconstruction to the existing nontolled road. Then, an intergovernmental agreement between the Illinois State Toll Highway and the Illinois Department of Transportation is required.

"I think it's a problem when you have the ability for the toll authority and IDOT to indiscriminately sign an intergovernmental agreement to turn roads paid for with taxpayer dollars into toll roads," Pastika said.

It would be preferable that such a significant decision be put to a vote by state lawmakers, she noted. "At least that gives some semblance of accountability," Pastika said.

Tollway officials point out there are other steps involved. The agency holds public hearings on major construction programs, such as the Elgin-O'Hare expansion (part of the agency's $12 billion Move Illinois construction program).

Then, the board of directors, which is appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn, votes on the capital program. If loans are required, the governor must approve selling bonds.

The Federal Highway Administration also has to sign off on any freeway-to-tollway conversions, which are laid out in the federal code.

"There is an extensive federal process in place that governs and provides guidance on tolling new and existing roadways," tollway communications director Wendy Abrams said via email.

"The role of tolling agencies is simply to provide a mechanism for financing new transportation infrastructure projects."

Many Lake County leaders think it's high time Route 53 was extended to relieve traffic problems and spur economic development. And because the benefits will be regional, it's fair the cost should be shared by everyone, they argue, rather than instituting county-specific taxes.

"No other county uses sales taxes or motor fuel taxes for state or regional roads - it's all for internal roads," Buffalo Grove Mayor Jeff Braiman said. "Why should Lake County be any different?"

He adds that Route 53 south of Lake County needs reconstruction, noting, "I don't know if IDOT has funds for that. The only way it could be reconstructed may be through the toll authority, and if that's the case, we'll have to get the funds from somewhere."

Many Cook County mayors - like Arlene Mulder of Arlington Heights and Tom Rooney of Rolling Meadows - support extending Route 53 north.

But tolling existing Route 53 to pay for it? Nope, Rooney said.

"The idea of a toll is a good one - people who use it pay for it. But for anything existing, that theory falls apart," said Rooney, who teaches economics. Rolling Meadows residents, for example, use Route 53 all the time to get to Woodfield Mall. "Paying a quarter to get to Woodfield is ridiculous," he said.

Mulder noted that drivers dodging tolls on Route 53 in Cook County will jump onto local roads not equipped to handle the traffic. "It could clog up local roads and impact local businesses," she said.

And, Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson thinks, "before opting in favor of tolling existing freeways, I'd like to see Lake County step forward and bear the brunt of the extension."

So what do you think? Lake County, Cook County drivers - I know you're out there. Drop me an email at

<b>A few more things</b>

&#376; The rebuilt Elgin-O'Hare Expressway from Gary Avenue to the airport would be about 10 miles. The existing portion is 4.8 miles. At 20 cents a mile toll, that's a $2 ride. The expressway will connect to the bypass, which stretches along the west side of O'Hare linking with the Tri-State to the south and I-90 to the north. The bypass is about 6.2 miles.

&#376; A new Route 53 extension from Lake-Cook Road to Route 120 would be about 12 miles in length. The existing, nontolled part of Route 53 between I-90 and Lake-Cook Road is 6 miles. Discussions are ongoing about improving Route 120 from Route 53 east to the Tri-State Tollway and west to Route 12. The tolled portion of that road could range from 4.5 miles to 12 miles.

&#376; And if you're dying to read up on tollway-to-freeway law, jump on this link, type in Title 23, Section 129. Knock yourself out.

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