Privatization woes: Wouldn't it be nice to freeze Skyway toll increases to offset gas prices?

April 25, 2011

(Photo by John Crouch)

This past weekend, I traveled to Northwest Indiana for Easter. When doing so, I usually will suck up the tolls and take the Skyway. It's a faster route and you don't run into heavy traffic. That's why you are paying big tolls. The last time I took this trip, it costs me $3 at the Skyway toll, $1.50 at the Indiana border and another 60 cents to get off the toll road. That's a toll of over $10, both ways. Add the high cost of gas and that trip to visit family is a costly one.

So imagine my surprise when I took to the road this weekend. The Skyway toll has gone up from $3 to $3.50. The increase took effect Jan 1, 2011.

According to the terms agreed upon when the Skyway was privatized, this increase was planned. Term 3 of the five term document states:

Term 3: 2011 and 2012 see another 50c raise in the 2-vehicle max to $3.50 and other vehicles staying at $1.80/axle. Again if the inflation-adjusted rates are greater than the nominal rates they apply as the cap. In effect some toll rates are simply inflation-adjusted since there is no increase in nominal toll rates. Transitioning to two year periods allows the 50c increases in car tolls to occur more frequently.

It goes on to say that in 2014-16, we should see a significant increase in toll in 2-axle vehicles, capping at $4.50.

Here is the question I pose: If the Skyway was not privatized and still owned by the city of Chicago, would they have the courage to increase tolls during bad economic times? If our mayor and other elected officials faced the decision to raise tolls, would they do so with gas prices hitting all time highs? They might not, avoiding what would obviously be political pressure from voters. But this question is hypothetical, since the city sold off the rights to the toll road years ago.

I'd like to see the numbers of how many people are on that road after the recent 50 cent hike. When the increase was announced, figures were down for car traffic on the Skyway. A search of the Tribune archives gave us a similar story when the Skyway toll went up 50 cents in 1987. The Skyway officials worried they would lose 10% of their traffic due to the increase. So it's a given: traffic decreases when tolls go up. But what about when skyrocketing travel costs are factored in? Could we be seeing a mass exodus from the Skyway?

It is something to think about as we get further and further into privatization deals. Is there a pause button when other travel costs hit a tipping point? Or will the market decide what the customer will bear for crossing a bridge? $3.50 still is three dollars less than what it costs to get from LaGuardia Aiport to Midtown Manhattan.

But in this case, the worry is that in order for the toll road to make a profit off of the huge sale, it will become part of the economic problem. And there's nothing we can do about it, excpet avoid driving on it. 

And then the expressway will become a luxury, while you sit counting quarters, hoping you might have enough money to get out of your traffic jam.