Tollway hearings

Citizens attend a public hearing Thursday on proposed toll increases by the Illinois Tollway, at the Kane County Government Center in Geneva. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / August 18, 2011)

Sparks flew as hundreds turned out tonight at the first four public hearings on the Illinois Tollway’s plan to nearly double tolls.

But the testiest exchanges weren’t among members of the audience. They erupted between a member of the tollway’s board and the agency’s chief executive.

Outspoken board member Bill Morris of Waukegan sparred with tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur over the accuracy of the agency’s numbers behind the bid for a 35-cent toll hike. Lafleur, meanwhile, took issue with Morris’ contention that an 87.5 percent increase isn’t needed at this time.

The tollway seeks to hike the basic I-PASS rate from 40 cents to 75 cents. Morris says that big a jump is unnecessary, under his analysis. A 15-cent increase is all that’s needed at this time, he said.

But Lafleur pointedly told Morris that his numbers “don’t necessarily add up.”

Morris responded that the numbers cited by Lafleur “keep changing,” and charged that he had been kept in the dark about the tollway’s proposal. “You’ve obviously lost my e-mail address,” Morris told Lafleur.

The intra-agency debate between the two officials came before a standing-room-only crowd at the Kane County Government Center in Geneva at the first of 14 hearings on the toll increase and the tollway’s proposed $12 billion, 15-year construction program.

Tollway officials say the program is designed to provide better travel conditions, relieve congestion, create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Hundreds more turned out at with meetings in Wheaton, Chicago Ridge and New Lenox. The hearings continue Friday through Tuesday in each of the 12 counties served by the tollway system. Locations and times are available at www.illinoistollway.com. The hearings are also being webcast.

Representatives from a variety of business groups, labor unions, government agencies and public officials testified in favor of the tollway’s plans. More than 17 engineers or engineering and construction company representatives alone testified in Geneva in support of the tollway’s program.

Most cited the need to keep the system’s bridges and roads in good repair, a major part of the capital program.

Illinois’ infrastructure is deteriorating,” said Abdul Khan of Patrick Engineering in Lisle. The tollway’s investment in roads and bridges is needed “for the safety and economic development” of the region.

Rick Dunlap, business representative for Local 150 of the operating engineers union, said the tollway’s plan would create much-needed jobs and pump dollars into the economy.

His union members “would rather have a 35-cent increase than take home two unemployment checks a month,” he said.

Opponents also came out against the increase, or at least the size of it.

One foe, Larry Hemmelgarn of Elburn, said the hearing was essentially a “love-in for all the contractors who will benefit” from the construction contracts.

The Regional Transportation Authority has endorsed the tollway capital program. “We believe that the plan well anticipates both the near-term and long-term needs of the region and allows northeastern Illinois to remain economically competitive,” RTA Executive Director Joseph Costello said in a letter to tollway officials.

New projects include construction of the Elgin-O'Hare West Bypass and an extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway; an interchange at the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) and I-57 in the south suburbs; and rebuilding the 50-year-old Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (I-90).

The tollway board is expected to vote on the capital plan and proposed toll increase Aug. 25.

Tollway officials say the basic 40-cent toll is the same as it was in 1983. The tollway doubled the cash rate in 2005.

The tollway also contends that tolls in Illinois are well below the national average.

Officials say that with this increase, the average car trip on the tollway system for an I-PASS customer would be $1.18, up from today’s average of 63 cents per trip. This would represent an increase of $2.75 a week, or $11 a month for the average customer, the tollway says.

Tollway officials contend the proposed capital plan will create more than 120,000 permanent jobs and add $21 billion to the economy.

All of the public hearings are being webcast live on the tollway’s website, www.illinoistollway.com. In addition, the tollway is soliciting comments on its website.

Freelancer Dennis Sullivan contributed to this report.

rwronski@tribune.com
Twitter @richwronsk