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Tollway officials: We're 'not good' at running oases
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

The Des Plaines oasis is one of seven in the Illinois tollway system run by Wilton Partners.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 11/25/2009 12:29 AM

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The Illinois tollway board of directors spent time thinking outside the glass box Tuesday.

Officials convened the first meeting of a special committee set up to scrutinize the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's problematic rest stops. The glass-walled oases, which provide travelers with gas, coffee and fast food, aren't attracting the vendors they used to with many kiosks standing empty.

In addition, Wilton Partners, the company that rebuilt and operated the seven rest stops, is facing foreclosure proceedings by its lender, iStar Financial. A new court-appointed firm is operating the facilities temporarily.

The original oases went up in 1958, at a time when the region was more rural and there were fewer rest stop options for travelers. Now with restaurants and service stations at multiple interchanges and with the I-PASS system, which lets drivers on and off tollways easily, it's time to rethink the oases' purpose, officials agreed.

"We have to figure where they fit in these days," Committee Chairman and Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said

The income the agency gets from the oases is nearly $2 million - less than 1 percent of its revenues. Officials estimated that leasable space at six of the oases is 45 percent to 65 percent unoccupied.

"I do not sense this as something we ought to run or own. It's not our forte. We're not good at it," Board Director Thomas Canham said.

However, the tollway signed a 25-year lease agreement with Wilton and that deal may be difficult to escape, regardless of what happens in the court case.

Director James Roolf said that since truckers are a major user of the tollways and its rest stops, it made sense to consider tailoring some of the oases to that market.

The next step for the group could be surveying I-PASS users about the future of the rest stops. The group is expected to convene several times again before it presents a report by Dec. 31, 2010.