Breaking: IL-53 extension will be expensive

October 25, 2013 at 7:02 am

The IL-53 expressway extension north into Lake County is hitting an obstacle: funding. I’ve opposed the extension before by calling it wasteful, but I’m a few years late to the debate anyway.

As it turns out, funding for a $2.5 billion expressway is hard to come by. From the Daily Herald:

…estimates show tolls on the new roadway will pay for only a fraction of the up to $2.5 billion cost, leading to a $1.9 billion to $2.3 billion gap.

$125,000,000 (or more) per mile of expressway* is rather expensive. While the project is in the CMAP Go To 2040 plan, that doesn’t secure its funding. Toll revenue, at $0.20 per mile, is cited as revenue source, but it would still leave nearly $2 billion or more in funding.

Illinois Tollway's concept image for the "environmentally sensitive" expressway. Image: Illinois Tollway.

Illinois Tollway’s concept image for the “environmentally sensitive” expressway. Image: Illinois Tollway.

Residents and likely users of the plan have also criticized the proposed toll, which is $0.14 higher than the average toll per mile on the Illinois tollway system. A full trip would cost $5.00 – higher than any single toll on the system. Have we awakened to the fact that highways are incredibly expensive undertakings whose full cost cannot be paid by the users alone?

Tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur asked:

Are there ways to leverage the rest of the tollway system to support a project like this?

I argued that a way to potentially reduce the traffic on existing expressway portions of IL-53 and the roads is to toll those roads first, then determine if traffic abates enough to make the need for an extension moot. If the traffic were still heavy enough, the new toll revenue could help pay for an extension, were it necessary.

Map showing extension of route 53 in comparison to Metra lines

Nonetheless, the idea of closing the massive funding gap by looking to raise tolls on other expressways is an example of how roadways users never directly pay for what they use. Other methods to fund the tollway were proposed – raising sales or gas taxes in Lake County, i.e., spreading the cost to everyone, no matter if they ever drive on the road.

In fact, few methods of transportation actually break even, and even fewer turn a profit. However, there are certain transportation modes that are cleaner, less environmentally damaging, safer, and cheaper than driving, and deserve subsidies to encourage use. Additionally, the toll revenue for the extension is expected to cover only 17% of its cost. For comparison amongst other local transportation systems, the farebox recovery ratio (how much revenue is obtained from users) for CTA is 56% and Metra is 55%. It is up to the leaders of this project to find a way to make it financially viable without saddling the general taxpayer with its massive cost.

*Technically, the road is a 2-lane, 45mph sort of boulevard with limited access.

Post edited 25 Oct 2013 11:40 to add information about estimated toll revenue and farebox recovery ratios.