Would you carpool or pay a toll to travel faster on the Eisenhower Expressway

More than 200,000 cars and trucks squeeze from four to three lanes daily in a notorious bottleneck on the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290), which is designed for only 138,000 vehicles.

The vein-popping, teeth-gnashing agony is the norm for suburbanites heading to the city and back.

The Illinois Department of Transportation wants to fix the three-lane circus. A draft plan recommends adding one lane in each direction of the bottleneck between Mannheim in the Hillside area and Austin Boulevard in Oak Park.

But there's a twist. If you're driving with two or more passengers, it's free. Go solo or with a passenger, and you'll pay a toll.

The proposal is online and public hearings will occur Jan. 25 and 26. Comments will be accepted until Feb. 13.

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin does a slow burn describing gridlock on the Eisenhower Expressway. “You can just add up all the days and the hours and the years of your life spent sitting in traffic on the Eisenhower (I-290),” Cronin said. “It's such a painful headache.”

Not only does the bottleneck waste time and fuel and increase smog, but crash rates are 24 to 70 percent higher than norms at regional highways, studies show.

IDOT would install the new pavement on the inside lanes and is working with the CTA to obtain land in the narrow corridor where the Blue Line runs. Buses or cars with three or more occupants could access the high-occupancy toll or HOT lane and pay nothing; vehicles with two occupants or less would be charged.

IDOT is selling the HOT lane with estimates that it could reduce travel times by 50 percent and ensure speeds of 45 mph.

“It's about providing a reliable trip,” IDOT bureau chief of programming and I-290 project manager Pete Harmet said. “The Eisenhower ranges from unreliable to really unreliable.”

Will drivers used to flying solo find friends and save money? “It will encourage carpooling,” said Kermit Wies, a Northwestern University Transportation Center adjunct professor.

But plenty of motorists will elect to go it alone, enabled by the ease of electronic toll collection, he thinks.

Elmhurst Republican Cronin calls the design “an improvement, although it's not as dramatic as I would have liked. It's unfortunate they couldn't have widened it to four free lanes,” he said.

IDOT intends to put similar express lanes on I-55 in DuPage and Cook counties, and the Illinois tollway has converted part of Route 390 to a toll road. The freeway to tollway creep concerns Cronin because “the cumulative impact of tolls disparately falls on suburbanites.”

But without a state capital plan or federal funding, tolling is the only way to fund the I-290 project, experts think.

“Motorists are always skeptical at first, but they quickly find when in a pinch that paying a few dollars for convenience is a very smart investment,” DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said.

Other states from California to Florida to Virginia have integrated tolling and freeways.

“It is an expedient remedy for that particular bottleneck,” Wies said. The trick will be preventing carpool scofflaws, Wies added, although a “Midwestern tendency to behave ourselves” should aid police.

Another challenge for IDOT is delivering on an express commute. The I-290 toll has yet to be set, although rates should vary depending whether drivers are traveling in rush-hour or not. IDOT has studied fees from 10 cents to 25 cents a mile in the I-55 project.

“The economic principle is the higher the price, the fewer people who are willing to pay that price, and traffic will move faster in those lanes,” Wies said.

“I'm intrigued by the idea,” said Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, a member of the House Transportation Committee. But she noted that IDOT's plan to put a tolled lane on I-55 is languishing in the General Assembly because lawmakers want more projections and details from Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“I could imagine an express lane on the Eisenhower might face a similar fate,” Nekritz said.

Hot or cold on the HOT lane? Drop me an email at For more info, go to

You should know

Eisenhower Expressway public hearings are 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 25, at the Proviso Math and Science Academy, 8601 Roosevelt Road, Forest Park, and Jan. 26 at the Marriott Chicago, 625 S. Ashland Ave. in Chicago.

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  A fourth lane would be added to the troublesome stretch of the Eisenhower, and it could charge tolls depending on how many are in the car. Daniel White/
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