Editorial: Briefly used tollway collection machines spur important questions

  • Tollway officials spent more than $20 million to buy and maintain a fleet of automatic payment machines that are no longer in use.

      Tollway officials spent more than $20 million to buy and maintain a fleet of automatic payment machines that are no longer in use. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 12/1/2021 7:51 PM

For most of us, our shopping history includes a few regrettable higher-ticket purchases. Hindsight casts a harsh light on some we'd prefer to forget.

Perhaps the Illinois tollway can relate.

 

Officials there shelled out more than $20 million to buy and maintain a fleet of payment machines that have -- over the course of roughly four years -- gone from collecting tolls to collecting dust, staff writer Marni Pyke wrote this week.

Should tollway users chalk it up as an unfortunate but necessary expenditure? A lapse in judgment? A lack of foresight?

Or, as former tollway board director Bill Morris of Grayslake told Pyke, an example of the board "having no respect for the public monies" they are entrusted to safeguard?

Back in early 2017, the tollway board under former Gov. Bruce Rauner decided to replace the system's aging coin buckets. The goal was to provide more payment options and better service.

The latter didn't quite pan out.

Two years ago, Pyke reported that 80 out of 110 machines installed did not provide change to drivers paying in cash. The tollway got some extra cash, but it was money that belonged to drivers -- not the agency.

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Then, 2020 hit.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave the agency a good reason to deactivate the machines and temporarily implement all-electronic tolling in March of that year as one way to lessen the threat of spreading the virus. That summer, the tollway started removing the machines.

And by February of 2021, the all-electronic transactions became permanent.

While tollway officials could not have anticipated the pandemic, going full-on electronic was on their radar before 2017.

Morris served on the tollway board from 2009 to 2011, years before the new machines were purchased. Even then, he said, "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?"

So, would it have hurt to keep the toll buckets a little longer -- to skip a $20 million middle step on the way to that future goal?

It's easy to question the decision in hindsight. But the tollway board, now under a new administration, and other agencies must look back -- and ask hard questions -- to save money going forward.

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