How do you earn 86% customer support for an 87% toll increase in the midst of a strained economic recovery? If you’re Kristi Lafleur, executive director of the Illinois Tollway, you make a powerful public case for refurbishing and expanding the state highway system and, in Kristi’s words, “turn weakness into strength.”
When Kristi told the Tollway’s story at IBTTA’s 80th Annual Meeting last month in Orlando, the audience was rapt. With 286 miles of roadway, responsibility for four major Interstates, and 27 Fortune 500 companies in the region, most of them along the tollway, the system is an economic backbone for the Chicagoland area. But the agency hadn’t seen a rate increase in three decades and was widely perceived as a creature of the suburbs.
After an 18-month capital review, the state adopted a 15-year, US$12-billion capital program, two-thirds of it devoted to reinvestments in the current system, funded by higher tolls. Public support was “critical to us getting what we needed,” Kristi said. “We made more friends and created more advocates out there in the community, but we also listened to what people wanted.”
The winning arguments:
- Previous investments in open road tolling had already saved commuters an average of 2.5 hours per week.
- Congestion still cost the Chicagoland region an estimated US$7 billion per year.
- A three-year delay in widening a key regional corridor would have increased project costs by US$400 million.
- The Tollway had demonstrated its commitment to efficient operations and non-toll revenue generation, introducing a four percent budget cut in 2011.
The agency also had to bust the myth that tolls were out of control, comparing the rate increase to the cost of a newspaper, a postage stamp, or a hamburger.
“We showed customers how much costs had gone up over similar periods of time,” she said. “What else has only increased 10 cents since 1958? Not much.”
In the end, of the 1,900 people who showed up for public hearings, 86% supported the toll increase.
On this week’s National Journal transportation blog, correspondent Fawn Johnson puts toll highways in uncomfortable company. “There is nothing that gets regular people more riled up than airlines’ checked bag fees, increased tolls, or sudden hikes in gas prices,” she writes. “They hate spending extra money on travel, especially when they feel they have no control over the seemingly random price.”
Toll agencies know that their pricing is anything but random, and in Illinois, the community has got the message. What are you doing to make an effective case for user financing, and how can IBTTA help?