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Plan would charge Chicago commuters to drive on faster express lanes

Monday, October 15, 2012

How much would you be willing to pay for the privilege of driving faster on Chicago-area expressways?

A new campaign is trying to gain support for a plan that would charge commuters a fee to drive on speedier express lanes.

If so-called congestion pricing does come to Illinois, drivers would probably see its inauguration on Interstate 90, the Jane Addams Tollway, which next year will begin work with the addition of two new lanes, one inbound, one outbound, ultimately all the way from the Tri-State out to Rockford.

The question is, How would those lanes be best used?

Begin with the premise that congestion is no fun and costs everyone time and money. One plan to lessen the misery is by giving motorists an option: Travel in a designated lane, for which you would pay -- or in the case of the tollway, pay more than you are now -- and in return, you reach your destination faster.

"In the short run, really, what we'd like to do is provide travelers with choices to get around," said Jesse Elam of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. "In the longer run, we really want to find a good way to manage congestion adequately."

So, say you are heading home on I-90. Tired of traffic, you reach an access to a new lane that charges you more money, but it means you get home faster. A computer calculates what you pay-- say, between 5 to 30 cents a mile.

"So, during rush hour, when there are a lot of people who take those lanes, then the price goes somewhat further up," said Elam. "Then when traffic goes back down, the price also goes back down.

Congestion pricing, express lane tolling -- call it what you will, but there are plenty of blueprints for it.

It started in Orange County, California, two decades ago. It's now the rule of the road on specific roadways in major metropolitan areas in 10 states, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, where Dave Borkowski is from.

"It seems to work in Minneapolis," Borkowski said. "Whatever you guys are doing here, doesn't seem to work."

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, in pushing the plan, says without some form of congestion pricing, any new lanes added to major highways are just going to get clogged up, so it's the way to go.

But, that may be a tough sell to many who are weary of the higher cost of everything, including the most recent toll hikes.

"Just for me to have to pay a little extra money, and I get less traffic, you know, I just that's a little too much," said Russ Day of Arlington Heights.

CMAP has studied congestion and pricing on five major roadways, including the Eisenhower and the Stevenson -- presuming they would get an extra lane of travel. The theory is that for another $2.75 or so, you would shave another 30 minutes or so off your commute. Worth it? Many public hearings ahead will determine the direction of travel.

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