Efforts to lease the Illinois tollway system for billions of dollars recently took another step forward as state lawmakers set up four public hearings on the topic for this summer, the Daily Herald reported.
The meetings, to be held by a committee of state senators, will feature expert testimony on the benefits and pitfalls of leasing the tollway as well as public comment periods, said organizing state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston).
The first meeting is scheduled for May 31 in Chicago, and the last will be held on Sept. 13.
"These hearings will do much more than just 'kick the tires,'" said Schoenberg, who began pushing the proposal earlier this year. "They will provide a detailed public debate on whether we should go down this path."
According to the newspaper, the meetings have the backing of Democratic Senate President Emil Jones Jr. of Chicago, and support for leasing the tollway has also been expressed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The deal would involve signing over the tollway's operation to a private investment firm for the next 75 to 100 years. While this is not common in the U.S., recent leasing arrangements have included the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road.
In these similar privatization cases, tolls have gone up; however, the leasing firms paid billions of dollars upfront. Chicago collected $1.8 billion, while Indiana received $3.8 billion. Some estimates predict the Illinois tollway could bring in more than $14 billion, the Daily Herald reported.
Months before a vote could even take place on such a lease, lawmakers are already encountering discrepancies as to how the money should be spent. Schoenberg believes the funds should be spent on transportation and state pension funding; however, Blagojevich and Jones have suggested the money be spent on school funding. Other suburban lawmakers think some of the funds should go towards suburban road projects. The public hearings will further explore how to spend the money.
The state has already received five bids from consulting and financial firms to complete a $60,000 study on how much money the state could bring in from leasing the tollway, the Daily Herald reported. The state panel will meet to select a firm later this month, and lawmakers could debate the lease proposal as early as this fall.
The meetings on May 31 and Sept. 1 will be held at the Thompson Center in Chicago. A second meeting is set for June 13 in Will County, and a third is set for Aug. 15 in Springfield.