Why more tolls could be coming to area freeways
Sometimes it's a stretch to take federal legislation and relate it to suburban issues. Other times, the correlation is as plain as converting freeways to tollways.
Yes, you heard me. The White House's $302 billion, four-year transportation bill filed last week gives its blessing to states to charge tolls on interstates under certain conditions.
Predictably, the Senate and House have their own highway bills percolating and there's no consensus as of yet. But something's got to give soon because the highway trust fund goes broke in August.
Readers of this column know the politics of transportation are messy -- funding is always in crisis. What's new is the pivot to tolling by the Obama administration.
The shift resonates in Illinois where the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway will transform into a tollway once the road is extended to the airport. And, an existing section of Route 53 might be tolled to pay for expanding north into Lake County.
Here's how two national groups see the issue.
"Most people are in agreement there needs to be additional funding to support our nation's roads and tunnels and that the interstate system is near the end of its useful life," said Patrick Jones, CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. "The challenge is many states depend on funding from the federal highway trust fund and that's not increased since 1993."
"So, we'd like to see states have the option, the flexibility to use tolling on their existing non-tolled highways for the purpose of reconstruction."
Prepare to be shocked, but the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, whose members include the trucking and express delivery industries, disagrees. Tolling is not only an inefficient means of collecting revenue, expansion would push traffic onto local roads, ATFI officials said.
The federal plan is also flawed because it would allow revenues to be used on other transportation projects, not just tolled roads, the alliance argues. While other states have opposed tolls on interstates, Illinois is ripe for expansion because it already has an infrastructure in place, a spokesman warned.
For an Illinois perspective, I asked Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk and state Sen. Jim Oberweis their opinions on tolling interstates and Route 53.
Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, earlier this year sponsored legislation to expand from three to 10 the number of states participating in a pilot project allowing tolling of interstates.
"Lifting caps to expand interstate tolling pilot programs will allow for local flexibility in transportation funding and revenue," a Kirk spokesman said. The senator's bill "unleashes local control and pricing variabilities, rather than unworkable one-size-fits-all solutions to our transportation and infrastructure capital and maintenance backlog."
Democrat Durbin of Springfield faces a challenge from Republican Oberweis of Sugar Grove in the November election.
"So far, we are not aware of any big push in Illinois to further loosen up restrictions on converting interstates into tollways," Durbin spokeswoman Christina Mulka said.
Generally speaking, Durbin "respects the local planning process and defers to the locals on what they think is the best for the region's transportation future. He promotes discussions that result in a regional or statewide consensus when it comes to potential projects like these," she said.
Regarding the federal bill, Oberweis "is not familiar with the details of this just-announced plan and will explore it in detail soon," spokesman Dan Curry said.
Oberweis criticized Durbin and other lawmakers for failing to "properly manage the increasing amount of tax dollars we send them. They have spent so much on unnecessary programs they have none left to fund important road work," Curry stated.
Tom Rooney is mayor of Rolling Meadows, one of several towns that would be affected if Route 53 between I-90 and Lake-Cook Road was tolled to pay for the Lake County extension. "We're all adamantly opposed," Rooney said.
Route 53 is a state road and its fate is likely to be handled in Illinois unless Washington miraculously picks up the tab. Rooney gives the Illinois tollway credit for offering his town a seat at the table as an advisory group debates funding options.
But, he noted, "this idea of having expanding authority to toll things across the country is a sizable shake-up when it comes to transportation policy."
Lots of reaction to an April 28 column about an asthma sufferer who had to forgo a trip because of a dog on a flight.
Nurse Barbara McQuillan of Mount Prospect wrote she definitely understands "the need for service animals, however, I also have many allergies. One of them is to dogs and they will trigger a very serious asthma attack. It makes me wonder whether this will be something that we will need to specify in the future when booking a flight. It is difficult enough to find a flight with airfares that we can afford -- and then the penalties involved if you need to adjust your flight."
• Keep calm and drive on, Elgin. Work starts this week to rebuild the Route 25 ramps and bridge at the Jane Addams (I-90) T ollway. Expect lane reductions.
• Schaumburg can expect advance work on the Roselle Road and I-90 interchange. Plan for lane reductions between Commerce Drive and Central Road.
Bikes rule May 25 on Lake Shore Drive during the annual MB Financial Bank Bike the Drive event.
Today's the last day for a $5 discount on registration.
To learn more, go to www.bikethedrive.org.
Fun for big and little train fansTurn off "Dora" and take your munchkins on a real exploration this Saturday for National Train Day at Chicago Union Station. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is sponsored by Amtrak. Options include Amtrak train tours, model train displays and kids' activities.