January 8th, 2021
Chicago Tribue | Judge rejects bid to block toll hike
A Cook County judge on Tuesday rejected an attempt to block the near-doubling of tolls scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 on Illinois tollways.
Judge Rita Novak dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Illinois Tollway’s power to raise tolls and denied a request for an injunction to block the hikes.
Novak ruled there was no reason to believe the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority was violating the state statute which created the agency, as the lawsuit argued.
The lawsuit, filed by a taxpayers group, challenged the continued existence of the tollway since its creation in the 1950s, and the tollway’s authority to perpetuate itself. It cited the agency’s approval of a new $12.1 billion, 15-year construction program, which will be funded by millions in higher tolls starting next year.
The judge found that the state statute establishing the tollway does not set a time frame that says “now is the time to end the tollway system.”
“There is nothing (in the statute) to require the tollway to stop operating,” Novak said.
The lawsuit was filed in September by James Tobin of Taxpayers United of America and echoes an often-repeated question raised by tollway users.
Gov. Pat Quinn, when he was state treasurer in 1994, favored setting a final date for all tollways to become freeways. Quinn now oversees the tollway through the agency’s board and backs the tollway expansion plan.
The suit sought to block what it called the “extortionate” 87.5 percent toll hike that the tollway board approved Aug. 25.
The basic I-PASS rate for many tollway users will rise to 75 cents from 40 cents. Other I-PASS rates will be higher, depending on the toll plaza. Tolls for cash-paying motorists will double.
Tobin said after the hearing that his group would likely appeal.
The judge allowed Tobin and the other plaintiffs to amend their lawsuit and argue their case further before her. Attorney Andrew Spiegel, representing Tobin, said they may seek additional plaintiffs to bolster their case.
In a statement, the tollway said it was pleased with the judge’s decision and that the new capital program “followed all applicable laws as outlined in the Toll Highway Act.”
The suit alleged that the agency violated the law by failing to convert tollways into freeways decades ago, when the original bonds were paid off, and ceasing operation.
“The language of the Tollway Act is crystal clear,” the suit alleged. “The Legislature never intended the tollway to be a self-perpetuating bond-issuing machine that continues ad infinitum.”
The lawsuit also made a novel argument: that the agency’s plan to convert the existing Elgin-O’Hare Expressway into a tollway is illegal.
“The Legislature never intended the tollway to confiscate freeways and convert them to tollways,” the plaintiffs argued.
The tollway plans to widen the Elgin-O’Hare and connect it to a future tollway skirting O’Hare International Airport’s western border. The project is one of many included in the tollway expansion program.
Lawyers for Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, who represented the tollway, argued that the state statute establishing the agency specified it shall be dissolved only “when all obligations and bonds including refunding bonds of the authority have been paid,” something which hasn’t occurred yet.
They also said the agency is funded by customers’ tolls and that no taxpayer dollars are at issue.