Tollway use is down, but revenue is up

Higher rates drove some motorists away from the Illinois tollway in the first quarter of 2012, statistics released Wednesday indicate.

There were about 4 million fewer passenger vehicle transactions January through March as a result of tolls nearly doubling on Jan. 1. In the first quarter of 2011, 169 million passenger transactions occurred compared to 165 million this year, a 2.4 percent drop, the agency reported.

But mainly because of the toll hike, revenues increased from $157 million in the first three months of 2011 to $223.8 million in 2012.

The decline in traffic was less sharp than expected, officials said, noting planners had projected a 5.9 percent decrease in passenger transactions.

"We performed better than we would have anticipated ... we had less falloff in passenger vehicle traffic," Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said at a finance committee meeting. But that could change in the summer when people are on vacation and have more discretionary trips, she noted. "We have always anticipated a 5.9 percent (decrease) across the board, sometimes it will be lower, sometimes higher."

As a likely sign of a recovering economy, more trucks were using the tollway in the first quarter, which also accounted for the extra revenues. Commercial vehicle transactions stood at 21.5 million, a 6.7 increase from the same three-month period in 2011.

Truck tolls will not increase until 2015.

"On the revenue side - particularly with the rebound of commercial vehicles, which we all hope indicates the economy is improving - we have seen revenue perform at a little bit more than we anticipated," Lafleur said.

Passenger and commercial vehicle toll transactions combined came to 186.7 million in the first quarter, a dip of 1.4 percent from 2011.

The tollway raised fees Jan. 1 to pay for a massive $12 billion "Move Illinois" construction program.

In addition to maintaining the current system, the agency will build an interchange at I-57 and the Tri-State Tollway, widen the Jane Addams Tollway and extend the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east in conjunction with constructing a bypass on the airport's west side.

The changes meant tolls jumped by 35 cents to 45 cents at most plazas, while ramp fees spiked by a range of 15 to 45 cents for I-PASS users in cars.

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