Monday, January 25, 2010

"Republican and Democratic voters alike oppose privatization"

Privatize Illinois' tollways? Voters say no


Richard Wronski
WGN News (Chicago)
Copyright 2010

Politicians who hope to gain traction with voters by urging that the Illinois Tollway be leased to a private company might want to rethink their strategy.

By overwhelming numbers, Republican and Democratic voters alike oppose privatization of the tollway system and believe it would lead to higher tolls, according to a Tribune/WGN-TV poll.

The statewide poll of likely primary voters, conducted Jan. 16 to 20, shows Democrats opposing privatization 72 percent to 14 percent, with 13 percent undecided. Republicans oppose the idea 65 percent to 16 percent, with 19 percent undecided.

Why? Among Democrats, 71 percent say tolls are certain to increase if the tollway is leased to a private company; 68 percent of Republicans feel the same way.

The idea of leasing the tollway has been floated -- and shot down -- before, in Illinois and elsewhere. Several states are considering similar plans.

GOP gubernatorial contender Jim Ryan recently became the most prominent candidate to suggest the plan. The former Illinois attorney general noted that a long-term lease of the 286-mile system could generate billions of dollars to fund public works improvements across the state.

Ryan pointed to Indiana's lease of the Indiana Toll Road for $3.8 billion as a guide.

A consultant's report commissioned by the General Assembly in 2006 estimated Illinois could receive up to $23.8 billion by leasing the tollway system under a 75-year contract. The estimate assumed increases in tolls by 50 percent every 20 years.

These days, however, experts say a tollway lease would command far less because of the poor economy. The global credit crunch killed Chicago's proposed deal to lease Midway Airport for $2.5 billion last year.

Tollway officials had no comment on such a plan.

Critics say privatizing public assets amounts to a temporary fix. Many point to how Mayor Richard Daley's deal to lease the city's parking meters provided a one-time windfall but led to steep rate hikes, broken machines and unhappy users.

Frequent tollway user Alex Sidorowych, 56, of Lake Zurich, called tollway privatization a "bad idea."

"It's a taxpayers' asset, and I think it should stay with the state," said Sidorowych, a property manager who drives the tollways for business.

Motorist David Cromley, 52, a salesman from Sugar Grove, agreed: "There's no doubt private industry could run the system better ... based on the mismanagement in the public sector. But the private sector has to show a profit. I think prices would go up more, and maintenance would go down to a worse level."

Chicago leased the Chicago Skyway to a Euro-Australian consortium in 2004 for 99 years for $1.83 billion. Since then, the toll for cars on the 7.8-mile stretch has risen to $3 from $2.

The lease allows tolls to rise to $3.50 in 2011, $4 in 2013, $4.50 in 2015 and $5 in 2017.

A benefit of the skyway lease is it frees the city from having to maintain the toll bridge, while providing long-term funding, said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-partisan fiscal watchdog group.

But the parking meter lease turned into a fiasco because the deal was struck with no public scrutiny, he said.

The worst thing the state could do is use the proceeds from a tollway lease to relieve pressure on the state's operating budget, which faces a $12 billion deficit, Msall said.

State Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston, proposed leasing the tollway in 2006, but the idea was doused by suburban GOP legislators.

Schoenberg said he finds it "somewhat ironic if not amusing" that some Republican candidates for governor are now talking up the same idea.

"It's quite different from the harsh criticism many of them were lobbing my way a couple of years ago," he said. "Now they're more interested, and I'm more skeptical."

Schoenberg also disagrees with those like Ryan who would suggest using lease proceeds for roads or infrastructure. The most prudent path, Schoenberg said, is to use the funds to pay down the state's massive unfunded pension liability, estimated at $80 billion.

This past fall, the tollway wrapped up its $6.1 billion rebuilding and widening program. But the five years of construction have saddled the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority with $4 billion in debt that won't be paid off until 2034.

And state law requires toll revenues to be reinvested in the tollway, not channeled to other agencies or the state's general fund.

Keeping the system the way it is works just fine for Tammy Clayton, 46, of Harvey, a postal worker who commutes 100 miles a day on the tollway.

"I like the way things are now," Clayton said while on a dinner break at the Hinsdale Oasis on the Tri-State Tollway (I-294). "The tolls would probably go up extremely (with a lease). It would make things pretty difficult for me."

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