Friday, September 28, 2007

Open Letter to Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois Toll Highway Authority, and the Illinois Department of Transportation

Dear Governor Blagojevich:

Thank you ever so much for making the newly-renamed Jane Addams Memorial Tollway so much less usable by implementing open-road tolling. Ever since the eastbound O'Hare toll plaza was restructured, the congestion there has been horrible. And it's entirely because of open-road tolling.

The entire open-road tolling project has operated on the assumption that the doubled tolls for cash payers would incent frequent users of the tollway system to purchase I-Pass units, because I-Pass holders can use the rolling toll facilities which permit tolls to be collected at full highway speed, meaning less delay for travelers, as well as a significant discount on the tolls themselves. A nice side effect is the Toll Highway Authority gets a ton of personalized data on the usage of the tollway system and saves on labor costs because it costs a lot less to collect tolls electronically than manually. I'm not arguing this at all. And, from what I've seen, it actually seems to have helped on the Tri-State, which is mostly commuter traffic. But, it's made things worse on the Jane Addams. Here's why.

The Jane Addams is, of course, also Interstate 90. Those of us who live in Chicago and the near suburbs probably think of this as "the road you use to get to Woodfield". When I lived in Niles, it was one of our routes to visit friends in Palatine, especially on weekends when the congestion would be relatively light. But for anybody living west of the Mississippi and north of the 40th parallel, it's "the road you use to get to New York City". Interstate 90, the nation's longest interstate, runs from Seattle all the way to Boston, and is heavily used by cross-country travelers (not to mention truckers). As a result, there are a lot of people on this road -- at all hours of the day and night -- who are not residents of northern Illinois and have no reason to obtain an I-Pass. These people will all have to go through the manual toll plazas and pay the penalty toll that the Toll Highway Authority charges to try to convince people to buy I-Passes. There are so many of these travelers that the congestion backs up from the small number of toll plazas that remain here (the conversion to open road tolling cut the number of manual and automatic toll collection units at least in half, if not more so) past the point where the high-speed open road tolling lanes separate off from the mainstream. As a result, I-Pass holders have to wait for non-I-Pass holders to pay their tolls, just compounding the congestion. I've gone through here at 11pm on a Saturday and encountered substantial congestion at this plaza. There's simply no excuse for that.

I don't have a problem with the Toll Highway Authority charging penalty tolls to out-of-area travelers; that means more money for the Tollway Authority taken mainly from people who aren't Illinois taxpayers, which brings money into the state and gives the system more cash to keep the roads improved. But can we please do one little thing? How about advising through traffic heading to Indiana and points east to divert from Interstate 90 onto Interstate 290 (the Eisenhower Extension) in Schaumburg, and then from there, onto Interstate 294 (the southbound Tri-State) in Hillside and then Interstate 80 into Indiana. They can then pick up Interstate 90 again when 80 and 90 interchange in northern Indiana. This will actually increase toll revenues for the Toll Highway Authority because there are either two or three toll plazas on the Tri-State that this traffic will pass through, instead of the single plaza at the end of the Addams. It will, of course, reduce revenue on the Skyway (sorry, Mayor Daley) and the Indiana Toll Road, but at the same time it'll also reduce congestion on the Kennedy and Dan Ryan.

Another thing that might help is if you tried to convince the route mapping services to recommend the bypass routes around Chicago instead of the direct through route. I ran test routes from Minneapolis to New York on both Google Maps and Mapquest. Both advises me to take I-90 all the way through Illinois, which means taking the Kennedy and Dan Ryan straight through the city. That is certainly the shorter route, but it's almost never the faster route.

How hard would it be to put up "THROUGH TRAFFIC TO INDIANA USE I-290 EAST" signs approaching the I-90/I-290 interchange in Schaumberg (and then "THROUGH TRAFFIC TO INDIANA USE I-294 SOUTH" on the Eisenhower near Elmhurst)? Doesn't seem like it would be that hard. And it might make the Jane Addams more useful for the people who actually live in and around Chicagoland -- and vote for things like Governor.

Just a thought. I suppose this might make congestion on the Ike and the Tri-State worse. Maybe we should just get rid of the tollways entirely. That would be better for the environment, too, you know....