Naperville, Aurora mayors among those who voted for Illinois toll increase

Amidst news that Illinois tollway directors voted today to raise tolls for a $12 billion capital project (see my earlier thoughts here), I noticed that Naperville Mayor George Pradel is involved:

But a majority of Illinois State Toll Highway Authority leaders said the move is crucial to repair existing roads and build some new ambitious projects such as the long-delayed Elgin-O’Hare Expressway extension into O’Hare International Airport and a western bypass road around the airport. The capital plan will create about 120,000 permanent jobs and ease congestion, officials said.

“My heart goes out to those going through tough times and that have lost jobs. One side effect of this is that it will enhance the economy in northern Illinois over 15 years,” said Naperville Mayor and tollway director George Pradel, who voted for the toll increase.

The decision didn’t come quietly — one board director called the move too hasty and proposed a scaled-back version.

Director Bill Morris of Grayslake, the only dissenter in today’s vote, thinks the toll authority could carry out a 10-year capital plan with a 15-cent increase at a 40-cent toll plaza now with more hikes expected later.

You can see the profiles of the Illinois Tollway Board of Directors here. Having never looked at these profiles, I was intrigued: Pradel is joined by the current mayor of Aurora as well as well a number of businessmen and two female public servants (one from education, one from Cook County government). On the whole, it seems like the directors bought into the economic development argument: good tollways, whether that means improved roadways or new roadways, will help northeastern Illinois prosper.

But looking at the backgrounds of this group, I wonder how many also were influenced by how better roadways might help their community or business interests. While this is not necessarily bad – indeed, northeastern Illinois needs businesses and jobs – it is a different perspective than the common driver might have. (And since this is Illinois, I assume there is some political process behind this board. Still, no “citizen” members?) Take Mayor Pradel: was his vote solely for northeastern Illinois and/or is this quite beneficial for Naperville? The regional argument is interesting (and I’m sure the job and economic estimates could be debated) but I would be interested in hearing about how local interests affected this vote.

Further details on proposed Illinois toll hike; Illinois tolls rather low

The Chicago Tribune reports today that the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority wants to raise toll rates in order to raise money for several new projects, including a reconstruction of I-90 (the Jane Addams), adding an interchange between I-294 and I-57 (one of the few places in the US where two interstates do not have an interchange), extending the Elgin-O’Hare, and undertaking several studies for possible new roads (extending Route 53, the Illiana Expressway).

But there is more to this story. While the Authority wants money to undertake these projects, there is another defense for raising rates: Illinois toll rates are lower than other states.

The council urged that tolls on the existing tollway system be raised to levels “consistent with national averages” to generate revenue for the EOWB [Elgin-O’Hare West Bypass]. Currently, Illinois Tollway users pay the equivalent of 3 cents per mile, while the national average is 7 cents per mile, officials say. Using that model could result in a systemwide doubling of the current rate, to 80 cents from 40 cents for passenger vehicles using I-PASS, and to $1.60 from 80 cents for cash customers…

The report also said tolls on the EOWB itself should be “consistent with the level of other new toll projects nationwide,” or about 20 cents a mile. This suggests that tolls on the new highway could be as much as seven times the current rate, or $2.80 for passenger vehicles using I-PASS and $5.60 for cash customers…

In addition, the council’s report recommends that future toll increases be indexed to inflation. The last time the tollway hiked car tolls was 2005, but that was the cash rate. Cars with I-PASS pay the same rate as they did in 1983, the tollway says…
The report also urges consideration of so-called congestion pricing strategies, in which vehicles pay higher tolls during peak hours or for express lanes; extending the tollway’s bond maturity term up to 40 years; and giving further study to tolling adjacent freeways. That could mean imposing tolls on I-290.

I’m guessing Chicago area residents will not like this as it makes driving more expensive (particularly with the price of gas) and there will general grumbling about how the tolls were supposed to disappear at some point. But, roads have to be paid for somehow and whether motorists pay through tolls or gas taxes, they will pay for the privilege of using roads. If anything, perhaps Chicago area residents should be surprised that tolls have stayed so low when other states have raised them. Since we can probably assume that the cost of road building has gone up like everything else, it sounds like tolls should increase.

If there is a larger issue to be concerned about, we could ask about the planning undertaken by the state. A road like the Illiana Expressway has been discussed for decades and waiting this long to undergo a major study and then go through with the construction will cost more now than it would have years ago. The Elgin-O’Hare has been a running joke for a while. Additionally, it would be interesting to see how close or far planners were in estimating the number of vehicles that would use the highways each day. The early expressways in the area, I-294 and I-290 are two examples, have seen much more traffic than was initially anticipated, driving up costs. Overall, more foresight could have saved money.