More construction, fewer toll collectors in tollway's 2018 budget draft

Is that toll collector in the booth an endangered species? Not quite with 387 collectors working for the Illinois tollway in 2018, but the numbers are dwindling as the agency moves toward an automated system.

Through attrition, toll collector jobs will drop by 32 next year, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the 55 eliminated positions agencywide, according to the proposed budget released at a Thursday board meeting.

Other budget highlights include an estimated $60 million spike in revenues and a $269.7 million increase in capital spending from 2017. Overall the operations and maintenance budget, which includes salaries and equipment, will rise by 5 percent to $353 million in 2018 related to higher pension costs, growing credit card fees and spending more on collections and technology.

Officials said they are not filling vacant positions, a trend that's most noticeable with toll collectors who numbered as high as 532 in 2010, for example.

The conversion to I-PASS lanes is responsible for the drop in toll collectors as well as a shift to all-electronic collection on new interchanges and roads like Route 390.

Currently, the agency is at 88 percent electronic. Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said the ultimate goal is 100 percent.

But "it will be a while before we're completely automatic. It's slightly frustrating we're not moving along at a quicker rate but we want to do it right," he said.

The bound in revenues comes as more people use Route 390 and return to driving on the recently widened Jane Addams Tollway (I-90). In addition, tollway coffers will benefit from a truck rate hike linked to the Consumer Price Index and financial penalties for I-PASS customers who don't use transponders in 2018.

The capital budget sits at $1.18 billion.

Next year, engineers expect to spend about $238 million on plans for a revamped Central Tri-State (I-294) between Rosemont and Oak Lawn. And almost $376 million is budgeted for design work on a ring road on the western side of O'Hare International Airport (I-490) and on the final segment of Route 390. Route 390 will connect with I-490 at the airport.

Drivers can also expect reconstruction work on the Reagan Tollway (I-88) between I-290 and York Road next year. Another 2018 project involves widening Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355) between Butterfield and Roosevelt roads in 2018.

Tollway directors Thursday authorized Schillerstrom to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the Union Pacific Railroad over access to railway property needed to complete the Route 390/I-490 work. The agency is in talks with the Canadian Pacific Railway on the same matter.

One likely issue at stake is how much to pay the railroads for access. "We think there will be some money expended to close this up," Schillerstrom said.

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