Tollway board OKs Tri-State widening over objections from some suburbs

Amid a chorus of support from gridlock-weary drivers and the construction industry, Illinois tollway directors approved widening the Central Tri-State Tollway (I-294) Thursday.

Officials promised no toll increases but about $120 million for the $4 billion project will come from new fees to be imposed on I-PASS holders when they don't use transponders.

A concept plan includes extra lanes, a "Flex Lane" for express buses, and highway interchange improvements at bottlenecks between Rosemont and Oak Lawn.

"This is a first step," Chairman Robert Schilerstrom said. "We'll be reaching out to the communities. We're very interested in listening to their input ... and we'll take that into consideration as we begin the design."

The agency is facing pushback from Oak Brook and Hinsdale where some residents worry about property values and increased air pollution.

"We never envisioned an expansion," homeowner Mark Johnson said, asking the tollway to consider buying affected homes.

The agency is promising 25 to 55 percent faster travel times and speed increases from 24 mph to 45 mph in rush hour.

Hinsdale Village President Tom Cauley doubted those figures, saying "there's no hard evidence to justify widening," in a statement read by a staffer.

Other suburbs such as Rosemont and Justice and construction industry representatives think a faster, more efficient I-294 will grow the economy.

"This project will create or sustain 43,000 jobs," said Dave Bender, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois. Current rush hour gridlock on the Tri-State "is strangling our ability to be competitive."

Much of the funding for the work is derived from a 35-cent to 45-cent toll hike imposed in 2012 to pay for the $12 billion Move Illinois road program.

The agency expects to gain $120 million by charging I-PASS account holders who don't have transponders in their vehicles the cash rate when going through tolls. Cash tolls are double I-PASS rates. This change likely will affect households with more cars than transponders.

Currently when tolls are missed, the agency uses technology to match license plates with account holders and charges the electronic rate but the service comes at a cost, officials said. This policy change still needs approval from a state committee.

The project will extend 22 miles between Balmoral Avenue in Rosemont and 95th Street in Oak Lawn.

Major chokepoints to be fixed include: the troublesome nexus of I-294 with I-290, I-88 and I-55; the Mile Long Bridge; and BNSF Railroad bridge.

Several people complained of Tri-State gridlock lasting hours that cuts into time with their families.

"It's heartbreaking to sit in traffic," said Diane O'Keefe, a vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff.

In addition to one new lane in each direction, the agency also wants to create Flex Lanes on the inside shoulders for express buses. Overhead digital signs also could direct vehicles to the Flex Lanes in cases of accidents.

Pace already operates buses on the Tri-State taking workers from the South suburbs to jobs in Rosemont and Schaumburg. Using flex lanes will improve travel times greatly, Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross said.

Other plans involve cooperating with towns along I-294 to alleviate flooding

and with the trucking industry to offer parking at oases.

How accurate will the tollway's predictions of faster speeds be? Construction is supposed to wrap in 2025.

"It's impossible to predict the level of car and truck traffic 20 years from now but in the short term, the new lanes will improve vehicle flow at the choke points,"said DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman.

"There aren't as many variables to complicate computer modeling for the Tri-State as most other roads, since it has far fewer exits and entrances than regular interstate highways. The extra lanes may induce a little more driving, but it will also keep the system running at reasonable speeds."

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