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Tolling Points

Declining Highway Funding Means More Tolling in Chicago's Future

By: 
Bill Cramer

It’ll be a while before the roads are approved and built, but the Chicago area is gearing up for an increase in its tolled infrastructure.

With traditional revenue sources like the gas tax declining, and Illinois’ transportation infrastructure receiving a C- in the latest ranking from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Chicago Tribune reported last month that the state is taking a serious look at new tolling projects and other forms of private project financing.

“The Illinois Department of Transportation is waiting for the General Assembly’s OK to pursue private financing to build new, tolled lanes on the Stevenson Expressway, or I-55,” the paper reports. And the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) “recommended more use of tolling to pay for highway projects, including the possibility of adding tolled lanes on Interstate 80 and the Eisenhower Expressway, or I-290.”

While the Tribune’s coverage picked up some initial concern about highway access for users, CMAP Executive Director Joe Szabo got right to the heart of the matter.

“There must be new revenues,” he told columnist Mary Wisniewski. “There’s no free ride.”

Fighting Congestion with Managed Lanes

Managed lanes figure prominently in CMAP’s long-term regional plan -- On to 2050. Construction along I-55 could begin as early as 2020, the Tribune states. And a 25-mile stretch between I-355 and I-90/94 is slated to get new toll lanes in both directions, funded in whole or in part by a private developer.

The region is also taking a close look at the 50-year-old Eisenhower Expressway, known locally as the Ike: It’s in “critical need of repair”, according to CMAP, with a bridge over the Des Plaines River that is due for replacement, and it’s congested.

The state is looking at adding an HOV lane along the Ike at some point after the I-55 project is complete, but “CMAP recommended tolling the entire road, given the estimated $2.7 billion cost of the project and the lack of other funding,” the Tribune notes. The Illinois Tollway is studying what might be possible, at the request of the elected board in Will County.

“I think we should be looking at everything,” said Board Chair James Moustis.

Tollway Chair Bob Schillerstrom said, “The agency stands ready to help on any of the region’s roads. The people who use the roadways, they don’t care if it’s an IDOT road or a tollway, they just want to know they can safely get from their homes to work and back in the evenings. And, if we can help to move them along in a quicker, more expeditious fashion and in a safer fashion, we’re there to be part of the team.”

Learning from Experience Elsewhere

The Chicago Tribune article points toward tolling experience in other states, and to some of the ups and downs of public-private project finance. IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones stressed the need to recognize ongoing maintenance costs on any highway, and the central role of tolling in paying for the work.

Jones said, “Think of a house you own, the mortgage is paid off, but you’ve got a leaky roof, you need a new water heater or new windows. There is always upkeep and maintenance cost for your own safety.”

Dig into the intricacies of highway infrastructure funding and financing. Sign up today for IBTTA’s Summit on Finance & Policy, July 22-24, 2018 in Portland, OR.

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