The Illinois Tollway board approved an 87 percent toll increase, meaning tolls for I-PASS users will nearly double for most passenger cars. Those who pay cash would pay double the I-PASS rate. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: November 27, 2011 1:22PM
Tolls will cost nearly twice as much but motorists ultimately will drive on a rebuilt, expanded and less congested tollway network, officials promised Thursday after passage of a massive $12 billion reconstruction program.
The “Move Illinois” plan overwhelmingly approved by the Illinois Tollway Board will build a “21st Century” highway network that produces both transportation and economic benefits, supporters said.
The improvements, though, will take a toll on drivers: tolls will jump 87 percent beginning Jan. 1. The cheapest toll plazas now will cost I-PASS users 75 cents, up from 40 cents.
Drivers without I-Pass will continue to pay twice as much, seeing their lowest rates at toll plazas jump to $1.50 from 80 cents.
But backers insisted the expansion project is crucial to keeping the Chicago area moving — literally and economically.
“We think it’s worth it because we’ll have a better system when we’re done and Chicago will be positioned well to be economically competitive,” said Tollway Board Chairman Paula Wolff, who backed the program.
Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, a Tollway Board commissioner, said the toll increase is needed to ensure northeastern Illinois remains a competitive economic hub.
Without the increase, he said, “the state isn’t going to be competitive in a global economy 20 years from now.”
He said two-thirds of the increase will fund repairs of the existing tollway system.
“As mayor, we’ve done a lot of work in the city on infrastructure,” he said. “If you try to cheat on infrastructure, you’re really cheating yourself. Ultimately you’ll pay a much higher price.”
Weisner said that a phased increase in tolls would have drastically increased the cost of capital plan projects.
“The total cost of improvements by deferring things would just go up and at best make financing more complex,” Weisner said. “If you look at the construction field right now, it’s highly competitive. You get more bang for your buck. This is the time to do it.”
While the increase is not ideal to commuters hard-hit by the recession, Weisner said the tolls haven’t been raised for a couple of decades.
“I don’t want to understate (the cost), but it is what it is,” Weisner said. “The last time I bought a pack of gum it was more than (the cost of the toll increase).”
The 15-year program calls for rebuilding, widening, expanding and overhauling large chunks of the tollway system’s 286 miles of highways:
Rebuilding and adding an extra lane in each direction to the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) between Rosemont and Rockford.
Reconstructing the central Tri-State Tollway (I-294) from 95th Street to Balmoral Avenue; rebuilding the Edens Spur.
Constructing an interchange linking I-294 and I-57, one of only two locations in the country where interstates cross but don’t connect.
Constructing the Elgin-O’Hare western bypass between I-90 and I-294; rebuilding and widening the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway.
Repairing the Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88) and Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355).
Gov. Pat Quinn said he believes the long-term plan is needed.
“Those are user fees. People who use the tollway understand we have to maintain the tollway,” Quinn said. “If it has a pothole, we have to refill the pothole.”
The improvements also should cut congestion, reducing travel times and gasoline expenses as cars spend less time idling in stalled traffic, tollway officials said.
Expanding the Jane Addams Tollway could slice 25 minutes off a trip from Elgin to the Kennedy Expressway, according to tollway projections. Building the Elgin-O’Hare western bypass could cut 13 minutes from a five-mile trip from I-290 to York Road, projections show.
The plan passed by a 7 to 1 vote, with only board member Bill Morris opposing it.
Morris, a former state legislator from Lake County, was upset the program doesn’t include funds to extend Illinois 53 deep into Lake County, though money is planned to study the long-stalled extension.
“It is unreasonable and unfair that Route 53 is not included,” said Morris.
Morris also wanted smaller toll increases phased in over time to give motorists more time to adjust to the higher costs, an idea that quickly died when no other board members supported it.
He noted poorer residents who don’t typically use I-PASS could see their annual tolls rise by a painful $400 to $500.
Even supporters acknowledged the higher tolls could hurt some drivers who rely on the tollways to get to work or travel through the region.
“It’s definitely tough, we had no doubt about that, and each of us struggled with that as a board member,” Wolff said of the cost to drivers.
The long-term plan will pump $21 billion into the regional economy, with construction funded by higher tolls expected to create more than 13,000 construction jobs annually for the next 10 years, according to tollway figures.
“This will put our members back to work,” said Tom Villanova, president of the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council.
Naperville Mayor George Pradel, also a tollway commissioner, said the construction program ultimately is needed simply to keep traffic moving across the region.
“The tollway’s mission is to move people,” Pradel said. “It’s time to bite the bullet.”
Staff writers Stephanie Lulay
and Abdon M. Pallasch
contributed to this story.