Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

The Eternal Toll

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    NEWSLETTERS

    “Once fully established,” a political scientist once wrote, “a bureaucracy is among those social structures which are hardest to destroy.”

    No bureaucracy fits that description better than the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. In 1953, the state decided to pay for the Tri-State Tollway and the Northwest Tollway with fares, rather than taxes. Most users, they figured, would be from out of state. Once the construction bonds were paid off, the tollways would be as free as the Dan Ryan.

    That never happened, because the coins falling into the tollway’s baskets became an irresistible source of patronage dollars, especially in DuPage County, the state’s premier Republican stronghold. The Tollway Authority -- appointed by the governor, independent of the legislature -- became a GOP version of the Chicago Democratic Machine. In 2000, Robert Heuer described this evolution a two-part Chicago Reader expose on the Authority:

    In the early '60s commission officials were citing the distant day of 1980, when the debt would be paid and the tollways folded into the state highway system. But the politicians soon realized they’d invented a money gusher -- keeping tollbooths in place had become essential. Toll collection was sure money and thus could serve as a source of collateral to keep the bond rating low, allowing the agency to readily borrow more money -- serving the needs of motorists for certain, but also the needs of empire builders who were dispensing tollway jobs and contracts.
        
    On October 26, 1967, lawmakers broke their promise to the public, transforming the toll commission into the more autonomous ISTHA and paving the way for the toll roads to become a permanent fixture.

    Of course, the 1950s being the dawn of suburbanization, politicians may not have realized the principle that building more roads actually increases rather than decreases congestion, because drivers flock to the new routes. All sorts of suburbs with no natural geographic reason for existing -- Western Springs, Lisle, Riverwoods -- grew up around the tollways. The more tollways we built, the more tollways we were going to need.

    In 2011, those promises to the taxpayers have been long forgotten, or dismissed as another example of Illinois politicians figuring out a way to keep a money spigot running.

    So now Gov. Pat Quinn can peddle these lines to the Sun-Times : “I don’t direct the board to do anything.” “I don’t think anybody likes toll increases — who would like that? — but the bottom line is: Sometimes it’s necessary if you’re going to have less congestion.” And “we have not had a general toll increase since 1983.”

    Quinn appointed half the board members (including the lone "no" vote, his staff tells us.) We’re not going to have less congestion. We were never supposed to have a toll increase in the first place.

    But we should have raised those objections in 1953. Now, we can no more get rid of the Tollway Authority than we can get rid of Lake Michigan.