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Bounce Back Better: Illinois Tollway Never Put the Brakes On

Bill Cramer

José Alvarez is the Executive Director of the Illinois Tollway. In this interview, part of IBTTA’s Bounce Back Better series, he talks about the activities and technologies used to keep the capital program “Move Illinois: The Illinois Tollway Driving the Future” fully operational during the pandemic.  




What’s one thing your authority has done, or plans to do, to bounce back better after the pandemic?

Despite the dramatic economic disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Illinois Tollway never put the brakes on its $1.46 billion capital spending plan for 2020, which includes more than $1 billion to fund the ninth year of the agency’s 15-year, $14 billion capital program, Move Illinois: The Illinois Tollway Driving the Future.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, Illinois imposed safety shutdowns that closed offices, schools and stores, which in turn significantly diminished traffic, including on the user-funded 294-mile Illinois Tollway system. In April, at the peak of the shutdowns, passenger vehicle toll transactions declined by as much as 55 percent and toll revenues fell $52 million below projected totals during the first quarter.

Recognizing the importance of the Illinois Tollway’s economic investments in the regional economy, Tollway leadership pushed ahead on existing schedules to continue upgrading roads and expanding the Tollway system while providing maintaining construction jobs for skilled workers. On a typical workday, about 500 to 550 workers are employed at Tollway job sites in addition to the Illinois Tollway’s workforce.  

Construction work continued on major projects that include the $4 billion widening and rebuilding of the 22-mile Central Tri-State Tollway (I294) and the construction of the new I-490 Tollway along the western edge of O’Hare International Airport. A key feature of the Central Tri-State Tollway Project, the construction of the new, $184 million northbound Mile Long Bridge, will be completed as scheduled by the end of the year.

Would you have done the same thing, or done it so quickly, if not for the pandemic? Why or why not?

The Move Illinois capital program was already in place, but Tollway leadership refused to allow the pandemic to stop or slow the progress made in upgrading the Tollway system to provide customers with safer and more efficient roads, while improving the transportation links that support the local and regional economy.

Tollway leaders knew customers would return to our roads as the outbreak eased and wanted them to see the agency had continued working to honor its commitment made in the Move Illinois to modernize and expand its system. It also was important that the agency continue this work to help create and sustain jobs and support the economy, which has been shaken by the pandemic.

More drivers are returning to the Tollway system and toll revenues are rebounding, with passenger toll transactions returning to about 80 percent of projected levels, with indications those numbers will continue to increase.

After falling as much as 20 percent below projected levels early in the pandemic, commercial vehicle transactions have returned to anticipated levels, a vital turnaround given that commercial vehicles account for nearly half of the agency’s annual toll revenues.

Additionally, the Tollway’s sound long-range financial planning puts it in a solid position to withstand the lingering financial impacts of the pandemic without having to scale back or slow its capital program.

What’s unique or innovative about the project?

The Move Illinois program is using innovative design and construction techniques whenever possible, including in projects underway this year on the Central Tri-State Tollway (I-294).

The Mile-Long Bridge Project includes construction of two new side-by-side, 4,800-foot-long bridge structures that will increase capacity from four lanes to five lanes in both directions, while also building wider inside shoulders to serve as flex lanes that can be used for a variety of safety‐related needs.

The design of the new bridges took into consideration the sensitive aquatic ecosystem, navigable waterways and existing railroad and roadway operations underneath by reducing the numbers of piers supporting the bridges from 106 to 52, a decrease of more than 50 percent. Longer beams, including precast concrete beams measuring 187 feet long and weighing nearly 125 tons, are being used to help reduce the number of piers needed.

Construction is being staged in phases to allow drivers to continue use the existing bridges while the new bridges are being built alongside, minimizing traffic disruptions and increasing safety for drivers and workers.

The new northbound bridge scheduled to open this year is being built next to the existing northbound bridge. Once that work is complete, traffic will shift to the new bridge, and the old northbound lanes and structures will be demolished.

Following this, construction will begin on the new southbound bridge, while the existing southbound lanes just to the west will maintain traffic. Once the new southbound bridge is complete, traffic will be shifted to the new structure and the existing southbound structure will be demolished.

Also on the Central Tri-State Tollway Project, the Tollway used self-propelled modular transporter (SPMT) technology to reduce the impact on drivers of beam lifts needed for the construction of a new Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway bridge.

During bridge segment placement,  using the SPMT technology allowed the Tollway to more rapidly place the beams, reducing the significant impact to its customers to four nights, compared to two months of overnight and weekend lane closures with full stops typically scheduled for conventional bridge construction.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The Tollway took immediate actions when the pandemic occurred to protect workers and contractors while still ensuring construction on the Move Illinois program could continue without interruption.

Tollway engineering staff updated safety protocols for contractors, requiring them to include provisions to protect their workers at Tollway construction sites from the spread of COVID-19.

The Tollway also took immediate action to convert its Central Administration building into a safe workspace for essential workers and a tech hub for remote workers.

Inside Tollway headquarters, halls and stairways were designated for one-way use to help maintain social distancing, sanitizing stations with soap, cleaning sprays and gloves were added and entry and exit procedures were implemented to limit contact between essential workers.

An improvised call center with socially distanced workstations was created to add critical customer service capacity to accommodate calls regarding I-PASS accounts, tolls and billing. High-efficiency air filters were installed to improve air quality and ventilation in heavily used areas.

To ensure work on Move Illinois would continue safely and without administrative delays, the Tollway implemented e-sign, a program that allows Tollway leadership to remotely sign contracts electronically.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, October 13, 2020 - 11:00


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