Tollway's job numbers from $12 billion program don't add up

Santos Martinez moves lumber as construction crews prepare to drill piles
on the Coon Creek Bridge along I-90 in unincorporated McHenry County last month.
(Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

The Illinois Tollway this year will go full speed on a $12 billion construction program, touting it as a jobs generator that will put an estimated 120,000 people to work over 15 years.

But while additional billions in increased tolls already are adding up, the job numbers don't.

A close look at analyses cited by the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority only accounts for about 82,500 jobs, and even that relies on "wildly optimistic and unfounded" assumptions, one independent expert said.

Since the 2008 recession, political leaders have launched campaigns they say will spur the economy and generate jobs. That's been a theme of Gov. Pat Quinn, who appoints the toll authority board and its leadership. The tollway says the $12 billion Move Illinois capital program is meant to "create jobs, stimulate local economies and provide the congestion relief customers want and need."

Tollway officials tout a potential $21 billion economic boon. But that's about the same amount as the tolls that will be paid.

Several economists who reviewed the program not only question the validity of the job calculations — they also challenge the notion that there's even going to be a net economic benefit.

For them, Move Illinois is a "zero-sum" exercise. That is because the program takes money from the pockets of toll payers and puts it in others' pockets — specifically, of those who would benefit from highway construction and related development.

"When people estimate a fabulously large economic benefit, most of the time it's completely false," said Matthew Rousu, an economics professor at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. "You're merely shifting money from one part of a region to another."

Tollway officials said several formulas and models were used for its job creation estimates, and that there was no single source for the 120,000 jobs number.

But a Tribune examination of hundreds of pages of documents and reports cited by the toll authority showed it coming up 37,500 jobs short.

The toll authority says that's because the capital program includes other reconstruction and work needed to maintain the rest of the 286-mile system.

The agency is trying to be conservative in its estimates, Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said. The tollway said a formula from the president's Council of Economic Advisers predicts the Move Illinois program will produce as many as 130,000 jobs.

"We tried … to be reasonable in our expectations and honest with the public," Lafleur said. "These are useful tools but there's no assurance. We will be tracking (the projects) to see the ultimate impact on the economy."

She added, "Time will tell whether that (120,000-job) projection proves to be the case, but when you spend 12-plus billions of dollars ... there is clearly a positive economic impact and job creation is part of that."

A major toll hike

Move Illinois is the toll authority's biggest-ever construction program. The agency's last major capital initiative, called the Congestion-Relief Program, started in 2005 under then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and cost $5.8 billion. Much of the existing system was rebuilt and open-road tolling was implemented. The Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355) southern extension was also built. That program is about 86 percent complete, according to the toll authority.

Move Illinois is financed by the 87.5 percent toll increase on passenger vehicles that went into effect Jan. 1, 2012. The tolls for trucks are scheduled to increase by 60 percent from 2015 to 2017, and they will be tied to the consumer price index after that.

Because most of the toll revenue that funds Move Illinois is generated locally, the program is essentially just shifting money around, economists say.

"If you spend money on the tollways, where is that money coming from? It's not as if this is brand-new money," said Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest College. "If people have to spend more money on tolls, then they have less to spend on other things. It comes at the expense of other economic activity."