Rauner, Democrats Lay Out Plan for I-55 Expansion

A year ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner was on a barnstorming tour of Illinois to promote his Illinois Turnaround agenda in advance of the spring legislative and budget-making session.

The was a prelude to what has become an eight-month standoff between Rauner and Democrats over the FY 2016 state budget, which today exists only as an abstract concept.

As calendar year 2016 dawned, Rauner adopted a new approach to his public appearances. Rather than calling press conferences to scold Democrats for blocking his reform agenda, Rauner has focused on efforts based more in pragmatism than politics. These have included creating a new department to overhaul state government's information technology system, pushing to reform the state's purchasing system and creating a private non-profit corporation to run the state's economic development efforts.

The latest example came Thursday, when Rauner gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to announce his vision of a public-private partnership that would widen the congested Stevenson Expressway, probably with express toll lanes.

The project would cover the Stevenson between the Veterans Tollway (I-355) and the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/94), a 25-mile stretch that handles 170,000 vehicles daily and is prone to long delays, especially during peak travel times. Under a 2011 state law, IDOT can pursue projects using public-private partnerships, as long as the General Assembly approves a resolution supporting the project.

"By using existing resources to leverage private investment, we can build the type of infrastructure that allows Illinois to better compete in the 21st century," Rauner said. "This is an innovative project that will create jobs, improve the region's quality of life and show that Illinois is open for business."

While Rauner and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly have deadlocked on just about everything since mid-2015, the presence of Democratic state Sen. Martin Sandoval at Rauner's announcement indicates this project might be an exception. Sandoval, D-Cicero, is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and his 11th Senate District includes House Speaker Michael Madigan's 22nd House District.

"This region has seen explosive growth in the past decade, but that has increased traffic on the Stevenson," Sandoval said. "Allowing IDOT to explore a public-private partnership will be a win for taxpayers and drivers. I stand with Governor Rauner to find new ways to relieve congestion on this important corridor for Illinois."

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, also spoke in favor of the idea. "What we are proposing today would give IDOT leeway to further explore the possibility of using private funds to keep the I-55 Congestion Relief Project alive and moving forward," Durkin said.

The Illinois Tollway Authority manages a vast network of toll roads in greater Chicago, but the concept of "managed lanes" -- in which motorists have a choice of free or paid lanes -- is new to Illinois. Illinois Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn described it as "an expressway within an expressway."

Rauner's plan could include congestion pricing, in which the price in toll lanes is higher at peak times. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has championed this idea for the flexibility it offers drivers and as a more effective means of financing road maintenance.

"Our region's congestion is already among the nation's highest. Without new approaches, it will only increase due to the projected growth of our population, jobs,and traffic. Current revenues are not keeping up with maintenance and operation costs. Underinvestment and deferred maintenance have strained our transportation system, leaving us with aging infrastructure that is deteriorating in some places," CMAP said in its GO TO 2040 report.

There's obvious, immediate appeal to Rauner's idea for anyone who regularly travels the Stevenson. Anything that might relieve its congestion, even at a price, will be welcomed by drivers who travel it regularly.

There's also a big-picture aspect that could portend a different approach to the state's highway system in the future. Illinois has struggled to keep up with the cost of highway maintenance, and ideas such as increasing the gas tax and implementing an annual mileage-based use tax are among those that have been discussed as solutions.

If the managed-lane approach works on the Stevenson, it could lead to similar efforts elsewhere on Illinois highways. Rauner said the public-private nature of the project, which could start as soon as next year be finished in 2019, would save taxpayers $425 million. The conventional gas tax or toll approach to highway funding can raise money, but innovations like managed lanes raise money while also addressing congestion and efficiency.

"Express toll lanes give travelers choices. Congestion in the Chicago region costs drivers time, money, and patience. Building expressway capacity is critical to handle our traffic, but construction cannot relieve congestion completely, especially with growth in traffic over time," says the CMAP report. "A new strategy is needed, one that gives drivers the option to avoid congestion."