Monday, June 09, 2008

Illinois toll road

Another search term that seems to hit my blog a lot lately is "Illinois toll road". There is, of course, no single Illinois toll road the way there is a single "toll road" in states like Indiana. Rather, Illinois has a system of toll highways administered by the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, all located in the area around Chicago. There are four highways in the system: the Tri-State Tollway, the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway, and the Veteran's Memorial Tollway. (There's also the Skyway, but that's owned by the City of Chicago and administered by a private firm under a capital lease arrangement with the City.)

Our illustrious governor, Rod Blagoyevich, has put a lot of political (and state financial) capital into an "open road tolling" project on the state's tollways that has, as I've previously noted, had mixed results at improving the usability of the tollway. In addition to the problems that this has created, the Tollway Authority has been in the news quite a bit lately for its aggressive collection efforts against toll scofflaws, many of which are not actually scofflaws; in some cases the problem (as in the link above) is actual fraud. Another I recall reading about was a case where a man inherited his deceased father's car. Unbeknownst to him, his father had run up a large number of unpaid tolls; when he registered the car in his name the Tollway Authority transferred the obligation to pay them to him, and had his license suspended. (There's something not quite right about that.) I never did hear how that got resolved, if at all.

Still, ISTHA is far nicer than other states, like Florida. In Florida, if your transponder malfunctions, you are, or at least were, guilty of nonpayment and must pay rather severe penalties, even though there is no way for you, as a driver, to know that your transponder malfunctioned. Illinois has long matched up missed tolls with transponder accounts (as the judge in Orlando ordered the Florida agencies to start doing), and in fact one of the benefits of the I-Pass has long been that as long as your I-Pass is funded a missed toll will be automatically charged to your account at the normal I-Pass rate (as long as your plates are on the I-Pass account; woe befall you if they're not) with no penalties. ISTHA has also become much more kindhearted about penalties in the past few months, probably because of all the bad press both for them and for toll authorities in other states.

The other interesting feature of the tollway system is the way it's been designed to capture revenue from interstate travellers. It's basically impossible to avoid the tollway system when traveling through the Chicago area. Since cash tollpayers pay double the toll rate of I-Pass holders, and have to wait in line at the manual plazas (which have been shrunk in number considerably by the open-road tolling project), this is a real PITA for the occasional traveler passing through. This even causes problems for the regular locals, as well, as I discussed in one of my previous articles.

The tollway has long been a convenient means for state government officials to hand off patronage to valued friends. It generates a smattering of revenue, while at the same time costing a lot of money. I can't imagine that it'll last that much longer, especially with today's trend toward "greening", which really disfavors tollways. Tollways increase gas usage as well as pollution due to the need to slow down for toll plazas, and are unfavorable in a green light in that sense to begin with. The open road tolling that Blagoyevich is so proud of helps with that some, but (as I've noted) actually makes things worse on some roadways. On top of that, the skyrocketing price of gas is pushing people off the roads entirely. I suspect that the days of the ISTHA are numbered.