Drivers pay higher tolls starting Jan. 1
I-PASS users will pay nearly double current rates starting Jan. 1 after Illinois tollway directors Thursday approved a massive $12 billion, 15-year capital program that will change transportation in the region.
Tolls will spike by 35 cents to 45 cents at most plazas and ramp fees will rise by a range of 15 cents to 45 cents for I-PASS users in cars. The nickels and dimes will add up for commuters -- the cost of going through the Touhy Toll Plaza on I-294 twice every weekday would jump by $234 a year, for example.
Drivers interviewed at the Des Plaines Oasis mostly gave a chorus of disapproval.
"It's too much money," Toby Mangold of Palatine said.
But a majority of Illinois State Toll Highway Authority leaders said the move is crucial to repair existing roads and build some new ambitious projects such as the long-delayed Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension to O'Hare International Airport and a western bypass road around the airport. The capital plan will create about 120,000 permanent jobs and 13,000 construction jobs -- officials estimated -- one reason it's received strong support from labor unions and the construction industry.
"My heart goes out to those going through tough times and that have lost jobs. One side effect of this is that it will enhance the economy in northern Illinois over 15 years," said Naperville Mayor and tollway Director George Pradel, who voted for the toll increase.
The decision didn't come quietly. One board director called the move too hasty and proposed a scaled-back version.
Director Bill Morris of Grayslake, the only dissenter in Thursday's vote, thinks the toll authority could carry out a 10-year capital plan with a 15-cent increase at a 40-cent toll plaza now with more hikes expected later.
"We don't want to create an elite road system for only those with a credit card," he said.
I-PASS users echoed some of those sentiments.
David Thiess of Barrington Hills commented that his favorite word is "empathy," and the tollway plan lacks that attribute. "It's unconscionable," Thiess said.
Stan Krys of Schaumburg is in favor of capital improvements but wondered what happens after the projects are built.
"Will they drop the toll back down because they'll be getting more revenue anyway? I seriously doubt it," Krys said.
Tollway Chairman Paula Wolff said: "I think it will mean a safer, less congested, less polluted new way of traveling around Illinois. And more importantly, it will mean we're not going to lose our economic edge as a region that has been built around the transportation system."
"There will be some people unhappy with it," Aurora Mayor and tollway Director Tom Weisner said. He added, "this country's been a world leader because of the interstate system built 50 years ago. If you don't make infrastructure investments, you will be sorry."
Route 53 tensions
The $12 billion breaks down into $8 billion for maintenance and rebuilding plus widening the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) from Rockford to O'Hare. The other $4 billion would pay for an interchange at I-57 and the Tri-State Tollway (I-294), extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east to the airport, and building a bypass on the western edge of O'Hare linking with the Tri-State to the south and I-90 to the north. It would also fund studies on expanding Route 53 into Lake County and on the proposed Illiana Expressway, connecting I-55 near Joliet to I-65 in northwest Indiana.
Morris faulted the plan for failing to fund the Route 53 extension. "There are people who live north of Chicago," he said. "It's unreasonable and unfair for Route 53 to be not included in the plan."
He predicted that should a committee appointed to study the Route 53 project come up with a consensus on a design, the toll board would be considering another toll increase in the near future.
Wolff disagreed. "We think we've been rigorous in terms of doing the financial analysis and the toll increase we're asking our customers to pay will be enough to support that plan," she said.
The program won't pay for all the costs, however. A $300 million gap exists with the Elgin-O'Hare project, for example.
Wolff said the agency could either reduce the scope of the project to make up the shortfall or "members of the communities can work with us to try and find other resources." Morris also challenged the tollway directors, at their meeting next month, to discuss eliminating free tollway passage for toll authority employees who are commuting to and from work.
About 73 percent of agency employee -- 1,159 out of 1,598 -- don't pay tolls on their work commutes. In August 2010, when 1,344 tollway employees had the toll passes, it cost the agency $228,957 a year.
On tolled exits and entrances, a 15-cent ramp would rise to 30 cents, a 25-cent ramp would go up to 45 cents, a 30-cent would spike to 55 cents, and a 40-cent ramp would be 75 cents for I-PASS users in passenger cars.
Meanwhile, drivers paying in cash will see their rates nearly double.
The rate hike didn't sit well with organizations including the Illinois Taxpayer Education Foundation and the Citizen Advocacy Center, a tollway watchdog.
"Most commuters in the greater Chicagoland area have no choice but to use the toll roads due to the lack of viable transportation alternatives," Executive Director Terry Pastika said. "This toll increase, very simply, is another tax hike for Illinois."