Illinois tollways were supposed to be 'free' ways

August 25, 2011 (CHICAGO)

In this Intelligence Report: The answer to a question that many Illinoisans ask, What happened to the original plan to make tollways "free" ways?

A popular phrase in Illinois a few decades ago was "Toll free in 73." That was the year, 1973, that Illinois taxpayers had been promised their original 187 miles of tollways would be paid off and the roads would be turned into freeways. But, by then, state politicians had realized that with the tollways went jobs, contracts and clout.

When the first three tollways opened more than 50 years ago, they cost a quarter at the main plazas and 10 cents at the exits. Today's tollway system is 186 miles of interstate spread over 12 counties, with no end in sight for the pay-to-drive system.

They weren't supposed to be eternal tollways.

In 1953, when the Illinois General Assembly created the Illinois State Toll Highway Commission, it was to borrow money to build highways. The tolls were intended to pay off those bonds. Then the roads were to become freeways, maintained by the gas tax.

But, in 1968, the General Assembly made permanent the Toll Highway Authority, still chartered to borrow money to build highways, but with no expectation of making them free.

The 2010 tollway budget is $696 million. There are more than 1,700 full-time employees, including 754 who collect the money.

In the 1950s, then Governor Bill Stratton convinced the public and legislators that the tollway was temporary. Stratton, now deceased, said in 1989, "Our idea was, at the end of 40 years, when the bonds were paid off, then the tolls would come off."

Today's governor, in supporting the eternal tollway, has a different take.

"The bottom line is the federal government is reducing its investment in transportation across the United States and our own state," said Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. "We don't want to raise the gas tax, so we have to use tollways in order to get people to work, to get people to school, to get where they want to go."

The original tollway bonds were paid off in the early 1980s. But additional billions have been borrowed since then, and today's plan includes the sale of more than $12 billion more.

In 1999, then-governor George Ryan briefly floated the idea of eliminating tolls, but it went nowhere. His successor Rod Blagojevich proudly hung his name over every open tolling plaza.

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