6th District hopefuls both balk about toll proposal

With a sprawling footprint that spans five counties, the 6th Congressional District certainly has plenty of voters who use Route 53 to get around the suburbs.

Those voters would pay a fee if a section of Route 53 between Lake-Cook Road and I-90 is tolled to help pay for an extension of the freeway north into central Lake County.

An advisory committee studying the Route 53 extension recommended the conversion to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which has not decided yet if it will undertake the project.

Although Democrat Leslie Coolidge and Republican Congressman Peter Roskam are far apart on many issues, both balk at the concept of turning an existing highway into a tollway. Such a change would require federal approval.

“I think my preference would be not to do that,” Coolidge said in an interview last week.

“I'm not interested in laying another toll out on anybody right now,” Roskam told the Daily Herald editorial board Monday. The Wheaton attorney faces Coolidge, a Barrington Hills accountant, in the Nov. 6 general election.

“Extending Route 53 is very controversial to start with before you get to how to pay for it,” Coolidge said. “I guess conceptually I'm not opposed to putting in tolls to pay for specific projects, but it should pay for that specific project and then it should die. I know there's a history of putting in tolls to pay for a bridge (for example) and paying for it and leaving the toll forever.”

Roskam said he's started to see I-PASS bills pop up on his credit card on a more frequent basis. He cited roadways in Wisconsin and Michigan, noting “they don't have this whole spider web of tolls across the metropolitan area. It begs the question — what are these states doing so that they've got the ability to fund their infrastructure?”

After months of gridlock, Congress passed a two-year transportation funding bill this summer to pay for roads and transit. But experts say the legislation failed to address the critical issue of the highway trust fund, which is going broke. Transportation is paid for by a flat 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax that's diminishing as cars get better mileage and high fuel prices deflate demand.

Roskam backs a House Republican plan that relied on reforms to federal employee pension contributions, expansion of offshore drilling, and streamlining federal bureaucracy to help pay for transportation.

But a proposal in that plan to move transit funding into the general fund was criticized by some of Roskam's suburban Republican colleagues and local transit agencies. Regional Transportation Authority officials said it would throw transit funding to the wolves.

“I wanted to keep the process moving,” Roskam said. “To say: ‘We don't care about the solvency of these funds — we just want ours' ... to say it's an all-or-nothing issue — that's part of the problem (with Washington).”

Coolidge said, “I'm not sure the trust fund approach is the best way in the long run. I'm not sure with the price of gas where it is and with where fuel economy standards are going — I'm not convinced of our ability to collect a lot more money through that mechanism and we'll have to figure out another way to do it.”

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