In an ambitious-yet-criticized project, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich (D) on Aug. 25 proposed a $5.3-billion-plan to convert half of the state’s tollway system into high speed, "open-road tolling." Illinois officials claim that the state's next big step in its 11-year-old, transponder-based collection system would be a first of such magnitude in the U.S.

"The time has come for a major overhaul," says Blagojevich.

The plan would replace most of the state’s traditional toll-plaza lanes with 116 miles of open-road toll lanes that would not require transponder-carrying drivers to slow down as they pass through toll plazas. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which maintains and operates the roadway, already has sold more than one million transponders since it launched its electronic "I-Pass" program in 1993.

Construction for the 10-year plan, slated to break ground later this year pending public approval, includes a 90% rehab of the 274-mile tollway system with continuously reinforced concrete pavement and upgrades to existing intelligent transportation systems. Approximately 65% of the tollway’s existing pavement is 45 years old, according to state transportation officials.

The highway project is expected to be funded largely by bonds, but its secondary financing mechanism is drawing scrutiny from public-interest groups. Tolls for drivers using the transponders would stay the same as before, but tolls would on average double for cars and nearly triple for heavy trucks paying cash.

State officials also say that the capital program, aimed primarily at reducing congestion, would yield a 41% cut in tailpipe emissions along the tollway. They are hearing public comments on the proposal through Sept. 21.

(Photo courtesy of office of Rod Blagojevich)