Illinois’s New Highways Will Cost Taxpayers Dearly

A tolled extension of Il-53 would be just as empty as the non-tolled section here. Photo: Interstate Guide

The nation may be driving less, but Illinois road boosters are still determined to build more highways. The problem for Illinois taxpayers is that it may be impossible to construct these new roads without huge subsidies.

Tolls on the proposed Illiana Expressway may be four times as high as tollways elsewhere around Chicago, according to a recent Illinois DOT report. But that price may be so high that the road won’t be able to draw enough traffic to cover its costs. Meanwhile, a “funding finding committee” that wants to extend a state highway in Lake County, IL-53, as a toll road, estimates that even with tolls the project has a $2 billion budget hole.

IDOT published an analysis this month that gauges how willing people are to pay certain tolls to drive on the 47-mile Illiana Tollway in rural Will County. The “toll sensitivity” report shows tolls on the Illiana would be 23 cents per mile, almost four times the Illinois Tollway Authority average. This led Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago to pose the question, “With no toll at all on the nearby I-80, an existing expressway that runs about 10 miles or so north of the proposed Illiana, guess where the trucks are likely to end up?”

According to the IDOT report, 43 percent of potential customers would use another road at this price. The report didn’t analyze if the remaining traffic would provide sufficient revenue to pay for the road. If Illiana users can’t cover the costs of construction debt and maintenance, all Illinois (and Indiana) taxpayers will be on the hook.

Tollways around the country are heading for default or an infusion of subsidies because drivers are sticking to freeways instead. Illinois seems poised to make the same mistake by building the Illiana.

Aaron Renn, writing at The Urbanophile, thinks the Illiana subsidies won’t be easily discernible. Rather, it’s going to be a boondoggle that subtly siphons money from what should be higher priorities:

Don’t expect any high profile bailouts. Rather, an increased share of the two state’s annual highway fund will have to be diverted to covering the shortfalls, crowding out spending elsewhere. This is one of the big fears in the rest of Chicagoland, where there’s a massive infrastructure investment deficit.

One hundred miles north of the Illiana corridor, road boosters in Lake County are struggling to cover the projected $2 billion shortfall for a 13-mile highway extension of IL-53. The total project cost is $2.56 to $2.87 billion, and tolls can only pay for a fraction of that. The extension is in the GO TO 2040 regional plan, not because it has funding, but because it was thought to be a regionally important project.

It may turn out to be a lousy one. The committee devoted to finding additional funding sources has proposed hefty subsidies, in addition to higher county gas taxes or adding an additional toll collection point to the Tri-State Tollway.

The committee comprises Illinois Tollway staff and Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Doug Whitley, among others. At a meeting yesterday they floated ideas including getting adjacent cities to pay for interchanges, or levying higher sales taxes on everyone who makes purchases within a certain distance of the road.

Another idea the committee mentioned was to set up a Tax Increment Finance district that would send property tax revenue generated above current levels to paying down the tollway’s debt. These ideas would mean all of Lake County’s 700,000 residents end up paying for the road, not just the drivers, passengers, and freight haulers using the highway.

The potential toll, according to the Illinois Tollway, would be slightly less than the Illiana but still three times higher than the network average, at 20 cents per mile. It would cover only 17 percent of the construction costs and debt service of the highway extension over 30 years.

In fact, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s analysis of the project’s planning and engineering documents that this number is closer to 10-15 percent because of poor accounting and ignoring certain costs. Compare this to CTA and Metra, where a majority of the annual operations are covered by users, at 56 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

Instead of pouring billions into expensive new highways, we need to get more out of our transportation network by tolling existing highways. Implementing congestion pricing – where the toll changes in response to demand – on new and existing lanes is one of CMAP’s priorities. Tolling existing roads is difficult because of rules regarding federally-supported highways, but would lead to better performance and more efficiency than any new road could achieve.

Illinois has twenty Congressional representatives. Maybe they should work on changing the federal tolling rules before the state is overrun by unused tollways and pointless road subsidies.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I don’t disagree that more highway building is pointless, especially well out of the city, but the comparison of CTA operating costs, to tollway capital costs seems like apples and oranges to me.

  • oooBooo

    The failing toll roads are crony capitalist projects where foreign corporations are brought in to suck up money from productive people. The entire absurd process cannot be covered in this space, but imagine building a road from scratch instead of Daley handing over the existing Skyway for a general idea. Furthermore such projects also have clauses in them to prevent existing routes from being expanded or improved in any manner. Some even call for the narrowing of the existing routes. The crony capitalist projects are simply ways of extracting money from taxpayers on both ends, not market based need and thus fail. Illinois operates a bit differently. Politically it sees roads as make work projects and land speculation for political insiders.

    The idea of comparing building a lake county IL53 extension to CTA or Metra operation costs is intentionally misleading. There is a vast difference between operation costs and building the infrastructure in the first place. A better comparison would be how much of the tolls cover the snow removal, pot hole filling, lane repainting, etc or how much of building the Ashland BRT and the additional buses will be paid for by riders. That’s if a fair comparison were to be made, which of course isn’t desired at all. This is not to be construed as support or opposition to the IL53 extension. It’s a comment regarding the article. The IL53 extension is just a patch on the haphazard road design in the NW suburbs and lake county in general IMO.

    Political pricing will not solve road issues. It will only result in unintended consequences. Politics is a not a market, it’s force. There is no way a political monopoly can price a road or anything else accurately based on demand or any other market forces.

  • oooBooo

    To understand the Illiana Expressway, like the Peotone airport, one has to understand south suburban politics. It’s not about transportation, it’s about the usual insider profiteering but also about showing something is being done to try and bring businesses and jobs back to the south suburbs.

    South suburban transportation infrastructure other than airport access has been superior to the NW burbs for ages. Better road design, better train service (commuter and freight), better by water as well. Building the airport is like a cargo cult, building the Illiana Expressway is like building Moai. It is thought that building these things will bring back the prosperity. They won’t. The prosperity went away for different reasons.

  • Lisa Curcio

    The discussion about the Route 53 extension has been going on since the mid 1960s. What possible reason could there be for constructing that road now?

  • They’re comparable because the dollar amounts and system-generated revenue proportions (“user fees” among other sources) are a rating of different transportation facility investments.

    The highway’s construction cost represents the greatest cost to serve as a transportation facility, moving automobiles full of people and goods.

    A transit system’s operations cost represents its greatest cost to serve as a transportation facility, moving buses and rail cars full of people.

    The GO TO 2040 plan forced us to start thinking about regionally beneficial transportation investments, and not whether we should fund this road or that road, or this transit line or that transit line – all facilities are looked at together, not divided into modes.

    Of course, the plan lists the IL-53 extension as a regional priority project, but priorities change. That was apparently the case when the MPO Policy Committee voted to amend the plan to include the Illiana Tollway as a priority project. And our priorities should change again to show that covering transportation facility investments with 10-17 percent system-generated revenues is a bad investment.

    Using a TIF district surrounding the road to fill the enormous funding gap for the IL-53 extension is not a form of system-generated revenue in the same way as the Chicago Transit Authority. It presumes that all property tax gains over the baseline set at the TIF district’s creation is the result of the tollway’s construction, whereas system-generated revenues on the CTA (outside of fares) is based on real property the CTA actively manages, including advertising, leasing, and concessions.

  • See my long comment above to @oooBooo:disqus about comparing the IL-53 extension’s costs not being covered by system-generated revenues and the CTA’s operating costs majority covered by system-generated revenues.

  • Both CNT and Metropolitan Planning Council take issue with the current planning supporting the roadway. For example, MPC wrote that in 2012 the roadway’s planning staff are still taking into account 2007 population data and projections even though more recent data is available and Lake County population growth has slowed.

    The same question can be asked about the Illiana. In documents supporting the Illiana’s construction it’s pointed out that an east-west corridor in the boonies is shown in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.

  • This became clearer to me at the CMAP committee and board meetings where south suburban legislators appeared to make the case that state investments have continued to bypass their districts.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    CTA’s greatest costs are initial capital expenditure for construction, just like IDOT’s greatest expense is initial capital expenditure for construction. You really can’t compare operations to construction and call it a level comparison.

  • CTA has budgeted its entire $6 billion capital bond program (debt) to be paid off in 2040, the same period that the IL-53 extension’s system-generated revenue would cover 10-17% of its construction cost.

  • Scott Presslak

    The “empty” portion of IL 53 pictured above has an AADT of over 130,000. Hardly “empty”.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    That is closer to a fair comparison. Now, when did CTA’s capital bond program begin?

  • oooBooo

    Capital infrastructure costs to running costs are not comparable. If it is desired to compare costs fairly if A is heavy in X and B is heavy in Y the solution is to add the cost types together and then compare. In this case add infrastructure and operating costs together for both and then compared on the desired basis.

    The IL-53 extension has been ‘coming soon’ for decades. If it is ever done, the financing methods will be totally different by then.

  • jennacatlin4

    More highways should be there to cater the traffic needs, tax should also be paid appropriately that is to be used for building more highways and parking safely with cheap car parking Luton


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