Illinois Tollway's $20 million toll-collecting machines are now collecting dust

In roughly four years, a fleet of over 100 automatic payment machines along the Illinois tollway has sunk from essential tools to expensive white elephants.

The machines' short but eventful lifetimes span two different tollway administrations under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Their price tag is more than $20 million, split between purchase and maintenance costs.

Back in early 2017, the tollway board under Rauner decided to replace its aging coin buckets with "more technologically advanced automatic toll payment machines that will provide more payment options and better service to our customers," spokesman Dan Rozek said at the time.

"The new ATPMs will cost less than $100,000 each and will offer more payment options than the current coin machines, which are at least 20 years old, accept only coins, and are difficult to repair because replacement parts have to be specially manufactured."

Gradually the new machines popped up across the system from DeKalb to Oak Lawn. But not everyone was happy with the innovations.

In November 2019, the Daily Herald reported that 80 out of 110 machines installed did not provide change to drivers paying in cash. As a result, the agency was overpaid about $152,000.

The new team of tollway leaders appointed by Pritzker stood by the technology, noting that "the ATPMs operate reliably and function well in real-world conditions, with the machines as a whole remaining fully operational more than 99% of the time."

Fast forward to the COVID-19 surge of March 2020, when the agency temporarily implemented all-electronic tolling and deactivated the ATPMs to prevent the spread of the virus.

All-electronic transactions became permanent in February 2021, but the tollway had already begun removing machines in summer 2020, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Of 119 units, the majority are gathering dust in various tollway facilities, although five were sold.

"ATPMs were never adopted to become a complete solution for systemwide cash toll collection," Rozek said last week. "They were intended as a supplement for locations with low traffic and low revenue, and as a replacement for aging cash baskets that served a similar function.

"ATPMs were constructed for continuous and regular use, requiring maintenance even when idle. To prevent further maintenance costs, they have been and/or are being removed. There are no plans for the reinstallation of the ATPMs at this time."

The machines collected about $19.7 million over their lifetimes and pocketed an estimated $463,992 in change.

About 91% of tollway customers pay tolls electronically with I-PASS or E-ZPass. But with 1.6 million daily drivers, that still leaves thousands paying online or by mail.

"Their removal appears to have had little to no impact on missed payments or revenues," Rozek said.

So, is there anyone to blame given one tollway administration bought the ATPMs and a second gave them an early retirement?

"I guess the toll-payers are the turkeys in this story," said former state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake. During his tenure as a tollway board director from 2009 to 2011, "it was a clear policy that the tollway was moving away from human and machine collections to fully electronic toll collections. How could a subsequent board have possibly thought it was a good idea to purchase and install these machines?"

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