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I-80 tollway? Not so fast

Federal highway rules, opposition could slow down tollway plans

A proposal to convert the local stretch of Interstate 80 is likely to face roadblocks.

Not everyone – especially commuters and truckers – is enthusiastic about the idea, even though it offers a funding option for the $1 billion-plus needed for road and bridge improvements.

Federal highway rules themselves put restrictions on the conversion of free highways into tollways.

State Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, said his legislation to start the process to eventually make I-80 a tollway from Interstate 294 to Route 47 in Morris has yet to get out of committee, but, “It’s getting conversation.”

Not all the conversation is positive.

“I would say it’s 50-50,” Walsh said. “Not many people want to pay tolls. I get that. Others have said thanks for throwing it out there. It’s something we have to look at.”

The basic idea is that turning I-80 into a tollway will create a fast lane for funding big improvements, including the replacement of the Des Plaines River bridge, reconstruction of the Chicago Street interchange and additional lanes to relieve congestion.

All of those projects are in a plan developed by the Illinois Department of Transportation, but the money is not there to pay for it.

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority has the bonding authority to get the job done in six to seven years, Walsh said.

“With IDOT,” he said, “it would take 10 to 15 years.”

State Rep. John Connor, D-Lockport, has joined Walsh as a co-sponsor of House Joint Resolution 50.

Connor contends a majority of vehicles using I-80 through Joliet are passing through from other states, and Illinois should find a way to make those travelers pay for upkeep of the road.

“What are other states that have I-80 running through it doing with I-80?” Connor said. “Ohio tolls it. Indiana tolls it.”

In Illinois, I-80 is a tollway from the Indiana state line to Interstate 294. Connor does not think that’s enough to collect the out-of-state revenue needed for maintenance.

But out-of-staters would not be the only ones paying to drive on an I-80 tollway.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said many of her constituents are I-80 commuters who need the road to get to work.

“They’re opposed [to tolls],” Rezin said. “They feel that as commuters going through the area, it would just be an expense to them.”

Rezin favors using a state capital bill now being developed to fund I-80 improvements.

Whether there would be enough money to fund the I-80 improvement plan is the question.

John Greuling, president and chief executive for the Will County Center for Economic Development, was in Springfield last week and did not come home optimistic about state funds for I-80.

Greuling said gas tax proposals now under consideration to fund a capital bill don’t raise “enough money to rebuild the I-80 corridor. The state has a lot of highway needs. That begs serious consideration of this tollway option.”

Serious consideration includes figuring out if it actually can be done.

“What we learned in Springfield is we still need to educate ourselves, and legislators need to get better educated on how a conversion like that can happen,” Greuling said.

Greuling believes it can be done.

Don Schaefer, executive vice president of the Mid-West Truckers Association, said other efforts to convert free highways into tollways have been unsuccessful.

“Nationally, anytime there’s an attempt to toll an existing interstate, it’s been shut down,” Schaefer said. “It’s not allowed by federal law.”

Actually, Schaefer acknowledged, there are exceptions allowed for pilot programs and other purposes for putting tolls or creating pay lanes on existing highways.

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner explored converting a lane of Interstate 55 into an express lane that would be privately funded. But motorists would have to pay to use it.

Schaefer doubted that tolls could be imposed from I-294 to Morris for the sole purpose of funding highway improvements.

The Mid-West Truckers Association already is lobbying against HJR 50, and Schaefer said most drivers would be against it, too.

“I think everyone agrees Interstate 80 needs a lot of work,” he said. “This idea that you’re going to say it’s going to be a toll road, it’s not going to fly. And, there’s going to be a firestorm of opposition to it.”

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