IL: Proposed Tollway Could Get Motorists to O'Hare, But Not Inside

July 27--The project would create 65,000 jobs. Inject $29 million a year into the local economy. Boost public transportation and build a network of bicycle and pedestrian paths. And, hopefully, relieve congestion around O'Hare International Airport.

Those findings, from an advisory council's report, have prompted Gov. Pat Quinn to put his political weight behind an ambitious plan to build a new tollway to skirt O'Hare and finally finish the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, a highway that was left undone 18 years ago.

"This is imperative, that we build this road for jobs (and) for economic growth," Quinn said, calling for construction of the $3.6 billion Elgin-O'Hare West Bypass.

Quinn's push comes at a difficult time for the Illinois Tollway. Revenues are down, but pressures are up from local officials and communities seeking congestion relief. Little of any federal funds are available for big-ticket highway projects. To build anything, officials say, the money must come from user fees -- tolls.

But some critics scoff that this project is an extension of an expressway long dismissed as a "road to nowhere" because it connects neither Elgin nor O'Hare. And the new proposal fails to access O'Hare from the west, its original goal. Finally, tolls on the new highway could be so high as to make drivers averse to using it.

The Quinn-appointed, 28-member advisory council recommended that the EOWB be built as a tollway. As governor, Quinn controls the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority through his power to appoint the chairman and directors.

On Thursday, the tollway board is expected to discuss, and possibly make a decision, on the project as part of its 10-year capital plan.

Here are some questions and answers about the bypass and the council's 63-page report:

Where is the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway?

Built in 1993 at a cost of $220 million, the Elgin-O'Hare is a 12.5-mile freeway running between U.S. Highway 20 (Lake Street) in Hanover Park and Interstate 290 in Itasca. Despite its name, it connects neither Elgin nor O'Hare.

Why the delay?

From the beginning, Chicago and the suburbs could not agree on the location for the expressway's eastern end point at O'Hare. The city originally wanted it routed to the south, so as to not preclude new runway construction, while the suburbs wanted it routed north to prevent it. Those competing interests stalled work. Recently, however, the long, costly feud between the city and suburbs over O'Hare expansion was resolved, allowing the city to continue building new runways and re-energizing the suburbs' hopes for the EOWB.

What's the new plan?

Illinois Department of Transportation plans call for extending the Elgin-O'Hare east from I-290 along Thorndale Avenue to the airport. The extension would connect to a new highway on the airport's western edge linking the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) to the south and the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (I-90) to the north.

When could it be built?

The earliest possible start would be 2013. Planning is being done in two parts, or "tiers." Tier one designated the route along with arterial, transit, and bicycle/pedestrian improvements. Tier two is now under way and includes detailed engineering and environmental studies. A draft environmental impact statement is due in the fall. But construction is dependent on funding.

What about the cost?

IDOT estimates the cost at $3.6 billion, but there is no additional state or federal funding available. The advisory council recommends tolls as a "vital component" for financing the EOWB, along with other options.

The council urged that tolls on the existing tollway system be raised to levels "consistent with national averages" to generate revenue for the EOWB. 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.

Doubling tolls would generate $283 million in 2012, growing to $679 million in 2030.

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.

That could put the EOWB in the same range as the Chicago Skyway, which charges $3.50 per passenger vehicle. Critics wonder if raising tolls too high could prevent motorists from using the EOWB, as some now avoid the Skyway.

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.

Are there other funding options?

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.

Will there be western access to O'Hare?

No. While the report outlines the need for construction of a western bypass, there are no plans currently to access O'Hare. In March, the city of Chicago and the major airlines agreed to move ahead on O'Hare expansion, but without a western terminal and parking.

"From our point of view, we can only control the road-building side," Gary Hannig, the former state transportation secretary and co-chair of the advisory council, said in April. "We believe the airport will get their problems settled, and we need to be sure we will be ready when they are ready."

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said building a west terminal was crucial. "If you look at the project long term, there's got to be a terminal there," he said. "We don't want to bypass (O'Hare). ... I want to get in."

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said the terminal will be "demand driven," but added that the city's goal is to get O'Hare's new runways completed. "There will be a point where we will need to move forward with expansion of the terminal complex or a new terminal," she said. That point will not come until after 2016, she said.

Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University transportation expert, said it's unlikely a western terminal will happen in the next decade. Nevertheless, he believes the bypass is needed to relieve the I-90/I-294 "chokepoint" east of O'Hare.

The bypass could be a "strategic link in our increasingly outdated expressway system," Schwieterman said.

Is this a transportation project or an economic stimulus proposal?

From the start in the 1980s, the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway was less about traffic than it was about development, jobs and tax revenues. That's unchanged today, based on the advisory council's economic impact findings.

Of the seven key economic impact findings in the report's executive summary, six address job creation and tax revenue generation. Only one finding addresses the transportation benefit, saying a reduction in travel delays will save $145 million annually by 2040.

The plan, Quinn said, is "a jobs blueprint."

The report says the EOWB, in conjunction with O'Hare expansion, will create 65,000 permanent jobs by 2040, and that local tax revenues will increase $29 million annually once the project is complete.

Can the tollway afford the project?

The council, co-chaired by tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur, pointed out that the tollway is facing financial pressures: stagnant revenue, lower purchasing power and the need to fill a backlog of infrastructure renewal and replacement needs.

According to the report, the tollway recently revised its revenue estimates down by $18 million in 2010 and nearly $60 million in 2011 because of the impact of the slow economy on passenger vehicle traffic and investment income.

Over the last 10 years, tollway operating expenses have grown at a rate of about 5 percent annually. Although the tollway is trying to keep future operating expense increases at a 3 percent growth rate, the agency's net revenues after operating and costs are expected to be below its targeted coverage ratio of two times debt service in the near term, the report said.

Lafleur said the tollway has a $1 billion funding gap between expected revenue and projected needs through 2026.

The tollway's top priority, Lafleur said, is the rebuilding and widening of the Jane Addams. Depending on the addition of mass transit options, this project is estimated at between $1.9 billion and $4.6 billion.

But isn't Quinn promising that the tollway will build other projects as well?

Yes. In addition to pledging his support to DuPage County officials and municipalities for the EOWB, Quinn is also promising south suburban leaders that IDOT and the tollway will construct an interchange between the Tri-State Tollway and Interstate 57 in Markham. This interchange is expected to cost $570 million. Finally, Quinn said, "We have to rebuild the Jane Addams. We can't just resurface it" because the roadway is 50 years old.

Twitter @richwronski

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