It was practically standing room only at on Tuesday night, as people from around the Fox Valley turned up to let the Illinois Tollway know just what they think about a proposed 15-year capital plan… and the substantial toll hike that would go with it.
The Tollway plans to spend $12.1 billion over the next 15 years, revamping its existing 286 miles (for $8.3 billion) and taking on several new projects, including a long-awaited bypass between Elgin and O’Hare Airport. The plan is expected to create more than 120,000 new construction jobs and add $21 billion to the state economy, according to Tollway leaders.
The work would also include reconstructing stretches of I-88 near Route 294, and between Farnsworth Avenue and Route 59 in Aurora; and restoring I-90, which links Rockford and the O’Hare Airport. A new interchange at routes 294 and 57 is also planned, as well as long-range studies on an extension of Route 53 and an expressway between Illinois and Indiana.
To pay for it, the Tollway has proposed the first full-scale toll increase since 1983, which would take effect on Jan. 1. At most toll gates, the rate would go up 35 cents for I-Pass users, and double that for cash users. The increase goes up from there, and at one plaza, would reach 90 cents, taking the toll from $1 to $1.90 for I-Pass users, and $2 to $3.80 for cash users.
Tuesday’s meeting took place thanks to State Rep. Kay Hatcher, who had asked for another hearing in her district after an earlier one’s hours were changed. Hatcher praised the Tollway for being responsive and accessible.
Only one board member, Naperville Mayor George Pradel, attended Tuesday’s meeting. Making the Tollway’s case was Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs. He pointed out that the Tollway gets no state or federal tax dollars, and said without a toll increase, the organization would not have enough money to maintain the system it currently has, let alone build more roads.
And a lower toll increase, he said, would mean a longer wait for those projects, which would mean a rise in the cost of those projects for every year they are not undertaken.
“We know that we’re asking for a lot with the full 35 cent increase,” Kovacs said, “but we know to ask for less, even though it would be less burdensome on users in the short term, would in the long term cost them more.”
The proposal has received strong support from labor unions, eager to see their members get back to work. Ed Maher, communications director with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, summed up much of the union sentiment in the room.
“This is leadership,” he said. “It’s not an easy decision, not an easy move to come to public and ask for 35 cents on top of tolls during a recession, but it will put people back to work and create jobs.”
John Nelson, an engineer from Naperville, said his daily tolls would increase from $1.50 to $2.81, but he said he is happy to pay that sum.
“All the projects in this program are important to the region, and we’ve been talking about them for years,” he said. “Not one will get done in timely manner if we wait for federal funding.”
The plan did not please everyone who spoke, however. Matt Cipola, a transportation equipment dealer from Plainfield, said higher tolls would contribute to sending businesses out of the state, and to sending cars and trucks onto local roads, thereby deteriorating them more.
I know we need an increase, we need expansion, we need improvements, I get it,” Cipola said. “But this is a pretty excessive increase. I’m looking for a moderation increase, and a couple years down the road, we can do this again.”
Kovacs said the Illinois Tollway currently has the second-lowest toll amounts in the country, and with the proposed increase, would rise to number 29 out of 41 tolling agencies.
David Lahti began his remarks by equating them to “pounding my head against a wall,” saying that comments on a plan in the works for a year and a half are most likely wasted. He said he is tired of dealing with construction on the Tollway, and said the plan may create too many new jobs.
He later clarified that he would like to see all the unemployed workers in the state find work, but worried that the jobs created above and beyond that would not be stable, and would create a “construction job bubble” that would burst once the 15-year plan was completed.
That comment brought a sharp response from Rick Dunlap, also a member of Local 150: “I’d invite him to come to our union hall on Thursday and hand out food boxes to all our unemployed construction workers.”
Tollway leaders said they will take the comments heard at this meeting, and the 13 others conducted around the 12-county area they serve, into consideration when voting on the plan. That vote is scheduled to take place on Thursday. You can still submit written comments through the Tollway’s website.