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Your need for speed may cost you during rush hour
Planners propose higher tolls at high-congestion times
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

A planning group wants to try to reduce rush-hour traffic congestion by nudging drivers off tollways through higher tolls. It would be cheaper to drive at off-peak times.


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Published: 2/29/2008 12:06 AM

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How much is breezing through rush-hour traffic worth to you?

That's the question commuters might face if federal dollars materialize to establish "congestion pricing" along part of the Jane Addams Tollway as a pilot project.

The concept, introduced in London in 2003, would require drivers heading into Chicago or to the suburbs during peak times to pay a premium for a faster trip.

Higher tolls for traveling at rush hour on the Jane Addams, also known as I-90, are expected to nudge thousands of motorists to opt for cheaper time slots.

"This could mean we have a substantial reduction in congestion with fewer crashes and more travel time mobility," said Tom Murtha, senior planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP.

The section pegged for the trial is on I-90 from the Elgin Toll Plaza to the Devon Avenue and River Road toll plazas. It would affect all lanes.

The agency hasn't set a price on congestion relief yet. But planners estimate raising fees 50 percent at the River Road Toll Plaza would reduce traffic there by 15 percent. Elsewhere on the system, increases of 10 to 20 percent could yield 3 to 6 percent fewer cars. Currently, tolls at the Devon Avenue, Elgin and River Road plazas are 40 cents for car drivers with I-PASS.

Ideally, Murtha wants to start the pilot project in 2009, but whether funding will come through is in doubt.

"People need choices to make this happen, and they need alternatives to make this happen, and we need federal financial assistance to make this happen," he said.

The options his agency would offer include high-speed buses that motor along I-90 and drop passengers off at key places such as the Rosemont CTA stop, the Des Plaines Oasis, the Arlington Heights Park and Ride, and the Prairie Stone complex in Hoffman Estates.

The proposal also recommends bus stations to serve the express buses and park-and-ride lots, improvements to arterial roads to make them attractive to drivers, and infrastructure such as a bridge from eastbound I-90 to the Cumberland Avenue exit.

The price tag is estimated at $308.7 million, but the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning applied for $247.6 million from the U.S. Transportation Department in late 2007. The federal cash is essential for the project to happen.

The planning agency's goal is to cut rush-hour trips on the Jane Addams by 5 minutes per trip eastbound and 3 minutes per trip westbound. The changes should have a domino effect on the Kennedy, reducing inbound peak delays by 5 minutes.

"We want everyone to travel at high speeds," Murtha said, explaining that faster travel times will move more cars through the system.

Overall, congestion pricing could create 8,000 new public transit riders and cut crashes on the Jane Addams by 20 percent, or more than 400 accidents, the agency estimates.

The stretch on the Jane Addams, near O'Hare International Airport, was picked because of its high traffic and congestion problems. While the Tri-State Tollway has the highest vehicle totals daily with 593,250 users, the Addams is second with 301,750.

The existing Open Road Tolling technology that automatically deducts money from transponders will ease the transition, officials said.

Tollway entry points between the River Road and Elgin toll plazas, with the exception of the I-294 interchange, also would be subject to congestion pricing. The costs of those tolls, however, could vary, with the River Road Toll Plaza expected to be the most expensive.

"We would establish tolls strategically so that tolls are directly related to congestion conditions, and people bound from areas where there are fewer travel alternatives are subject to less congestion pricing," Murtha said.

The tollway started congestion pricing for commercial trucks in 2005 in addition to more traditional solutions such as widening and reconstructing roads, tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said.

"We're always looking for innovative ways to reduce congestion," she said.

"(If the Addams proposal) moves a small portion out of the system, even 10 percent, it can significantly reduce congestion and improve travel times."

Mark Fowler, executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference, a regional conference of mayors headquartered in Des Plaines, said the concept has potential.

"Given the level of congestion, not only on that roadway but elsewhere, it's an idea worthy of taking a look at," Fowler said. "But it needs to be done with the participation of the municipalities in the corridor."

In a meeting with other elected officials, one DuPage County municipal leader recently warned about the strategy.

Lombard Mayor Bill Mueller said citizens are overburdened with taxes and noted the state just passed legislation to raise the sales tax to fund public transportation.

"(With congestion pricing), I know the idea is to encourage people to use public transit, but I don't know if it would work," Mueller said.

"All this does is put another hardship on residents. It's like it never ends."

In its "congestion charging areas," London has reported a 21 percent drop in traffic, reduced pollution, fewer crashes and more bicycling.

In the United States, New York, Miami, San Francisco and Minneapolis have received federal funding to implement congestion pricing.

If congestion dips on the Jane Addams, then higher rush-hour rates could become permanent and possibly be introduced elsewhere.

"If we realize it doesn't work, we'll pull it back and re-evaluate," Murtha said. "But the intent is to keep it going. Our view is this will work."

The payoff

In London: 21% drop in traffic, as well as less pollution, fewer crashes

Chicago-area goal:

Traffic: Increasing fees 50% at River Road Toll Plaza to reduce traffic there by 15%. Increases of 10% to 20% elsewhere to reduce traffic by 3% to 6%.

Time: Cut 5 minutes from eastbound rush-hour trip on Jane Addams and Kennedy.