Kadner: Paying for ‘freeways’ over and over again
Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-6787 July 30, 2011 12:58AM
Updated: November 2, 2011 3:31PM
Whenever my family traveled the Illinois toll road system as a child, all of us would brace for Dad’s rant.
As we waited in line at the first toll booth (there were no I-PASS lanes back then), Dad’s jaw would begin to grind.
“Freeways!” he would shout, spinning around to stare at us kids in the back seat of the car.
“That’s what they told us. We would pay the tolls to pay off the bonds to build the roads, and they would become freeways.”
I remember looking at my brother in horror because it seemed to me that Dad was blaming us personally for whatever it was that had turned him into a raving lunatic.
“I want you to remember that boys,” he would say.
I promised to remember, silently praying that would be sufficient to drive away the demons that had taken possession of my normally even-tempered father.
The rant continued as long as our car remained in the toll booth lane and continued long after the booth had disappeared in the rearview mirror. And it would start again as soon as the next toll booth came into sight.
Yet, it made me smile the other day to read that tollway officials are planning to increase tolls by 35 to 90 cents to pay for improvements in the system.
A smile may seem strange given my nightmarish childhood recollection. But I promised my Dad, and now I’m making good on that pledge.
The state law creating the tollway system in 1953 stipulated that toll roads would become freeways when the bonds were paid off. That never happened.
The initial toll roads (I-90, I-294 and eventually I-88) were built in sections, and each of them seemed to take forever.
When a section of one of those roads was finally opened, families would often hop in their cars and take a drive just to see what it looked like.
I have never had that sort of personal relationship with the tollway system that my father seemed to. It was just a way to get from one place to another a little faster.
And I always liked the toll roads better than the expressways. There never seemed to be as many potholes. During the winter, snow and ice didn’t seem to collect as fast, or the road crews moved quicker to get rid of the hazards.
It cost money to maintain the roads, and I understood that. The tolls, a few coins really, didn’t seem excessive.
Of course, there were always suspicions that someone was stealing some of the money, eventually followed by evidence that such larceny indeed was taking place. In addition, the tollway authority became a political patronage haven.
In recent years, I’ve actually become a fan of the open road tolling system, zipping by those lines at the booths with my I-PASS.
In 2004, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority made an official decision not to turn the tollways into freeways and to instead issue new bonds to expand the tollway system.
That decision included the I-355 extension from I-55 to I-80 near New Lenox. We’ll be paying off those bonds until 2034.
The tollway authority’s new plan allegedly includes money for the I-57/I-294 interchange that I’ve been campaigning for and writing about for most of my reporting career. I will believe it when I see it.
The tollway system that symbolized all that was evil about government to my Dad spurred suburban growth that only a few urban planners could have envisioned.
Tinley Park was “the country” when I was growing up in Chicago. Naperville was a quiet little farming community with a pioneer settlement that attracted tourists.
Bypasses. That’s what I-294 was called when I was a kid.
“The number ‘2’ before the ‘94’ signifies a bypass,” Dad told me, designed so people wouldn’t have to use expressways into big cities but could bypass them and the traffic jams that went with them.
He wasn’t opposed to the idea. In fact, Dad thought it was a mighty fine plan.
He just didn’t like being lied to — by his kids or government officials.
“If you make a promise to people, you ought to keep it,” Dad said.
As I grew older, I tried to explain to him that there were costs to maintain the toll roads. If they became freeways, the Illinois Department of Transportation would have to come up with that money from another source.
“They said they would be freeways,” Dad replied. “They should have become freeways. We already paid for the right to travel these roads.”
And he felt like he was being cheated every time he dropped a dime into a toll booth.
Of course, today I don’t drop any money into a booth. My I-PASS pays electronically.
It makes it so much easier to increase the cost of riding those freeways.