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'Green lanes' plan withers but other projects sprout up
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/25/200 12:02 AM

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The Illinois tollway Green Lanes program touted by Gov. Rod Blagojevich just weeks before his arrest last year is dead, although the agency is moving forward on part of the construction program involving a new interchange plus possible bus/carpool lanes on I-294.

Dubbed Congestion Relief Two, the project had a rocky start when prosecutors said they caught the former governor on tape extorting campaign donations from a highway contractor in connection with it. And, some drivers who are bearing with the tollway's current rebuilding and widening program also objected to the Green Lanes or carpool concept in the plan because it would take up an existing lane.

Tollway leaders put the $1.8 billion program on hold following Blagojevich's ouster and replacement by Gov. Pat Quinn, who was skeptical of the project.

Thursday, agency officials said that Congestion Relief Two and the Green Lanes concept are extinct.

"With the economic downturn, our revenues have gone down," acting Executive Director Michael King said, adding the agency is projected to take in about $40 million less this year. Currently, the tollway's borrowing capacity is estimated at $1 billion.

Congestion Relief Two included building an interchange at I-57 and the Tri-State Tollway, improving the Route 53/I-290 and I-90 interchange plus $400 million in unspecified interchanges on the system.

The tollway is pursuing the I-57 and Tri-State project, but other concepts like the Route 53/I-290 and I-90 interchange have "to go back into the soup," King said.

"It all comes down to discussing the projects with our board and the governor's office and getting a sense of how the tollway can serve the best interests of the state."

When tollway directors approved Congestion Relief Two, they also approved a toll hike for trucks effective in 2015 to help pay for the work.

Tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said the toll increase was an issue new board members would discuss in the future.

At a Thursday meeting, tollway officials discussed applying for federal funds for the I-57 interchange and to establish an express bus service along I-294 connecting workers in the South suburbs with jobs in Rosemont and O'Hare International Airport.

The tollway is partnering with Pace on the project. Plans call for an existing I-294 lane to be converted for use by express buses and for cars with more than one occupant.

Although the idea of designating a lane for express buses and carpools has drawn criticism, tollway officials contend that despite widening its roads, traffic volumes will continue to grow.

"We can't build our way out of congestion," King said.

Regarding the I-57 interchange, engineers said it will reduce truck traffic on local roads, spur economic development and end a longtime complaint from University of Illinois-bound drivers who take I-57 to reach Champaign but are frustrated by the I-294 disconnect.

King said the tollway will partner with the state on the interchange.