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Sick of tolls? Group seeks to end them

Russell Johnson is the co-founder of No Tolls, Inc.
Russell Johnson is the co-founder of No Tolls, Inc.

For more than 20 years, Russell Johnson spent between $300 to $400 a year on tolls commuting from his Downers Grove home to his job at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Now retired, the 76-year-old Johnson believes enough is enough. He is co-founder of the group No Tolls, Inc., which seeks to abolish all tolls along with the Illinois Tollway Authority.

“It is not fair to those who cannot afford using the roads,” Johnson said.

The group is in the process of gathering thousands of signatures on a petition to convince legislators to introduce or support legislation “that would get rid of the toll tax from our highways,” he said.

“We have to have enough names so it makes an impression on our legislators,” Johnson said. “It may take us a year.”

Creation of tollway system

The Illinois State Toll Highway Commission – predecessor to today’s Illinois Tollway Authority – was created in 1953 by the state legislature.

The first 187 miles of the tollway system opened in 1958, including Interstate 90, the Tri-State Tollway and the portion of Interstate 88 from the Tri-State to Aurora.

In 1974, I-88 was extended from Aurora to Rock Falls.

The operations of the tollway are administered by an 11-member board, including Gov. Pat Quinn and acting secretary of transportation Gary Hannig, who serve as ex-officio members.

The chairman of the board and the board’s directors are appointed by the governor and serve four-year terms.

Efforts of No Tolls, Inc.

No Tolls, Inc., which originally formed in 1999, is redoubling its efforts after being dormant for several years. The group had a booth at the Downers Grove Heritage Festival this past weekend, and was at the recent Pride of the Fox RiverFest in St. Charles gathering names on its petition.

Johnson said Illinois residents are being double taxed, noting the Illinois Department of Transportation already uses motor fuel taxes to maintain roads.

“A toll is really a tax,” he said.

Sympathetic ear

No Tolls, Inc. has a sympathetic ear in State Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora, who several years ago sponsored legislation to abolish the tollway system.

That legislation was stonewalled, he said.

“The promise back in the 1950s was that the tollway would be made into a freeway,” Lauzen said. “That is one of the classic broken commitments of modern time.”

Defending tolls

“We think it is the fairest way to fund it,” Illinois Tollway Authority spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said. “It operates as a pay-as-you-go system. You have a choice. You don’t have to use a tollway.”

The tollway system spans 286 miles through 12 counties in northern Illinois. No state or federal taxes are used in the day to day operations of the Illinois Tollway Authority.

“The tolls we collect fund our roadways and our maintenance and the District 15 state police,” McGinnis said.

On the average, excluding I-355, passenger car drivers pay 40 cents per toll if they have I-PASS or 80 cents per toll if they are paying in cash.

In 2005, the cost per toll for those drivers paying in cash increased to 80 cents, up from 40 cents, to help pay for I-PASS, which is a prepaid toll collection system that the tollway authority implemented to reduce traffic congestion.

“Open road tolling is the most effective congestion relief tool we have,” McGinnis said.

The program has proved to be popular among motorists using the tollway system.

“More than 80 percent of the toll collection is done electronically through I-PASS,” she said.

Additionally, McGinnis said tolls pay for bond payments set to fund a capital construction program this year.

The Illinois Tollway Authority is in the fifth year of a $6.3 billion capital improvement project set for completion in 2016.

“More than 80 percent of the work will be completed this year,” McGinnis said.

The authority currently has outstanding debt of $3.8 billion. Another $200 million in bonds are set to be sold later this year to fund the rest of the $6.3 billion capital program, she said.

As to whether the tollway system should be dismantled, McGinnis said that’s a decision the governor and the state legislature need to decide.

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