Vote Thursday could lead to quicker commute on I-294

The controversial toll increase from 2012 would help pump up a utilitarian $1.9 billion reconstruction of the central Tri-State Tollway (I-294) into a robust $4 billion makeover.

The proposal that Illinois tollway directors will vote on Thursday includes extra lanes, a “Flex Lane” for express buses, interchange improvements, flood relief and truck parking on I-294 between Balmoral Avenue in Rosemont and 95th Street in Oak Lawn.

Traffic engineers pointed to chronic gridlock at peak times on the Tri-State and estimated the upgrade could get cars traveling from 25 percent to 55 percent faster and increase speeds from 24 mph to 45 mph on average during rush hour.

Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said he wanted planners to “think outside the box” after a Monday committee meeting where board directors approved the concept.

“If we'd done nothing ... we'd just be tearing up the road and not doing any congestion relief. Today was a philosophical statement. ... Then we'll get down to the nitty-gritty,” he said.

Agency leaders stressed there's no need to increase tolls to pay for the project. Indeed, much of the funding for the work is derived from a 35-cent to 45-cent toll hike imposed to pay for the $15 billion Move Illinois road program several years ago.

About $1.9 billion was allocated in Move Illinois for a central Tri-State rebuild. An extra $700 million has emerged thanks to higher revenues and cheaper borrowing costs than estimated. The agency also intends to issue bonds.

But about $100 million could come from a crackdown on I-PASS holders who share transponders. The tollway is considering imposing a 50 percent fee on I-PASS users who incur tolls without transponders in their vehicles. Currently, the tollway uses technology to match license plates with I-PASS customers and charges the amount owed to accounts.

Some towns along the corridor such as Rosemont are welcoming the modernization, saying it will improve safety and provide reliable travel times.

“This is the first step,” Schillerstrom said, adding the next move is to meet with communities along the corridor to work on a design.

However, Hinsdale, Western Springs and Oak Brook residents are worried about air pollution and losing homes and parks to expansion.

“We're not defending our community like the Alamo,” Oak Brook homeowner Al Knuth said. But he warned directors Wednesday that more lanes will increase vehicle emissions and noise levels, affecting public health.

The tollway board is appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“We have a lot of voters,” noted Oak Brook resident James Degerstrom, who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to the Tri-State.

In addition to one new lane in each direction, the agency also wants to create Flex Lanes on the inside shoulders for express buses. Overhead digital signs also could direct vehicles to the Flex Lanes in cases of accidents.

Key chokepoints to be improved include interchanges with I-290, I-88 and 1-55; the Mile Long Bridge; and the BNSF Railroad bridge.

Other plans involve cooperating with towns along I-294 to alleviate flooding and with the trucking industry to improve parking at oases.

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