Tollway chief wants new route to O'Hare, prairie plants, jobs

Economic growth and transportation are intertwined, which is why one of his jobs at the Illinois tollway is jobs, new Chairman Bob Schillerstrom said.

"Infrastructure fills a very important role. The most important thing to do is make sure people have jobs to provide for their families and to create an environment (in Illinois) where businesses want to come in," Schillerstrom, of Naperville, said in an interview this week.

That means continuing with the agency's massive building program, pushing for full access from the west side of O'Hare International Airport and possibly taking action on a northward extension of Route 53, Schillerstrom said.

Appointed last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner, the attorney and former prosecutor is used to political dynamics after three terms as DuPage County chairman and a run for Republican nominee for governor.

He's spent the last few years in private practice at the Ice Miller law firm.

Schillerstrom applauded the tollway's ongoing expansion of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east to O'Hare and a planned western bypass around the airport, but he wants more.

As DuPage chairman, Schillerstrom pushed for western access to O'Hare with a new passenger terminal, arguing it would spur economic development.

With pushback from American and United airlines over a rival terminal, the project has been sidelined. Future western access currently means a parking lot and a bus trip to the east side of O'Hare.

That's not good enough, Schillerstrom said.

"I want real access to the airport. I want it to be built out pursuant to the plan in 2003 that was agreed upon by the FAA where it shows a western terminal with full access," he said.

That would mean a people mover train similar to the one that takes passengers between parking and existing terminals,

"I realize it will have to be done incrementally," Schillerstrom said.

Schillerstrom also envisions improving the toll network in the south suburbs to help create jobs.

Lake County leaders are seeking an extension of Route 53 north from where it ends at the Cook County border.

The tollway is expected to decide this year whether to adopt the project, which faces an up to $1.9 billion shortfall.

Asked how the agency would bridge that gap and if it might require a toll increase systemwide, Schillerstrom said, "I just don't know."

"At first blush, the project looks very beneficial as an economic development tool and congestion relief tool. We have to be practical and realistic and if we do a project, we have to find a way to pay for it.

"It's a balancing process. You've got to find a rate or amount that is fair and doable for everyone. You can't have tolls so high you chase a certain economic class off the roads. And, it can't be so low you can't do adequate maintenance."

With former tollway Chairman Paula Wolff resigning and Executive Director Kristi Lafleur stepping down in mid-June, there's a leadership gap at the top.

"It's a well-run organization and I think they should be applauded," Schillerstrom said, adding he expects to work with the governor's office to find a successor to Lafleur.

"Certainly what the governor thinks is very, very important. I look forward to sitting down and getting a feel for what they see for the tollway."

As Rauner doubles down against the Democrats amid a financial crisis, hopes for a significant state capital plan are diminishing. Federal prospects of a multiyear transportation program are also dicey.

That makes the tollway one of the few players in town, Schillerstrom said.

"With the technical advances we're seeing in tolling, there are really great opportunities to have the user pay. It's the fairest way to build and use infrastructure," Schillerstrom said.

Asked about the possibility of converting freeways to tollways, "it's a discussion that should be had," Schillerstrom said. "IDOT has no money, the federal government has no money. As we sit here right now, the only road agency with money and the ability to raise funds is the tollway."

As for other priorities, Schillerstrom would like to see more prairie plants and trees instead of grass on tollway-owned land.

"There are probably some places we can find opportunities to aid the environment, whether it's planting trees in designated areas instead of just grass or plantings for pollinators and birds," Schillerstrom said.

The tollway recently incurred the wrath of some state lawmakers by ignoring a new law increasing speed limits to 70 mph and introducing its own 60 mph and 65 mph policies in the metropolitan region.

Schillerstrom said he'll consult with tollway engineers and safety experts before weighing in.

"I'm not coming in with a feeling it's got to be 60 mph or 70 mph."

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