New Illinois tollway chairwoman talks about challenges, commuting and construction

The Illinois tollway is entering one of the most consequential construction seasons of its 15-year, $14 billion road building program, and it's doing so after losing an executive director and a chairman in the last five weeks.

Dorothy Abreu is keeping calm and chairing on.

"I will continue to move forward with the focus on transparency and integrity, and ensuring that we continue to deliver on budget and within the time frame we've laid out," the tollway's new chairwoman said last week.

Since her appointment Feb. 18 by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, "I have spent the vast majority of my time getting to know each and every individual who chairs a department, both major and minor," she said. "The folks that we have here are phenomenal."

Abreu, who lives in Wilmette, is a senior vice president for PNC Bank's Corporate and Institutional Banking group.

Right now, it's a busy time at the agency with millions of dollars in road contracts to be awarded. Staff members are also processing a turbulent few years with the COVID-19 pandemic, and state Senate scrutiny of procurement irregularities and friction between former Chairman Will Evans and former Executive Director Jose Alvarez.

The Daily Herald interviewed Abreu Wednesday after her first board meeting.

Q: How will you chose a new executive director?

A: It's a conversation that the directors have to engage in and it's a further conversation obviously to ensure that the individual selected is one who aligns with the goals of the agency. We're a unique enterprise and I'm confident that the individual who is going to be selected ... is one who will be vetted by the office of governor, the board of directors and the leadership team of the tollway.

A: Who will be acting executive director?

Q: We had a preliminary conversation today. We will be having additional conversations with individuals to ensure the interim executive director is the right person. We do anticipate being able to share that in short order.

We have over 1,600 employees here and they're fabulous. And I'm certain that we will find the right interim leader and ... we will be fine.

Q: Given Senate scrutiny of the tollway, do you intend to conduct an audit or internal review of past practices?

A: As a public entity we operate with significant checks and balances already in place and those will continue to be in place. I'm three weeks in, I'm still wrapping my arms around some of the more detailed aspects of the operations.

Q: Which construction project has caught your interest?

A: The most exciting one is the tollway (I-490) that we're building that's just going to wrap itself around O'Hare International Airport and create access from the western point that will relieve a ton of congestion.

Q: Do you use the tollway a lot?

A: I'm an avid tollway user. I've had a transponder for ... honestly I don't know how many years. I live in Wilmette so I take three tollways to get to Downers Grove, (the agency's headquarters). Which tollway do I use the most? It would be I-294.

Q: How will you separate your role at PNC from your role at the tollway?

A: PNC has done work in the past with the tollway. As part of my appointment, we took it very seriously as an organization. We worked closely with the office of the governor and we did make a decision early on that (PNC) would remove ourselves not only from the tollway's bond pool but also from the state of Illinois' bond pool.

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Workers lay bridge pier foundations to connect the new I-490 tollway with I-294 near Bensenville. Courtesy Illinois Tollway/February 2022

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Abreu grew up on the northwest side of Chicago near Logan Square with four siblings. Her parents were "two progressive and very conservative individuals. I have a very reserved English mom and I had a very charismatic Latino dad from the Dominican Republic."

She started her financial career at age 17 when she got a job at a local bank. She studied at DePaul University and has a degree from North Park University in Chicago.

At PNC, Abreu advises nonprofits and public institutions, and works on securing funding "for projects that really drive economic change in primarily disadvantaged neighborhoods," such as the Whole Foods grocery store located in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood.

She also volunteers on the boards of organizations "that align with my passions," including the Latino Policy Forum and Chicago Habitat for Humanity.

That financial and governance experience lends itself to the tollway, Abreu thinks. "We are a significant economic driver to our region and our state." And, it's important to bring "moral integrity" to the table, Abreu said. "Knowing that what we need to do - we need to do the right way, in the right manner, and with transparency."

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