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Illinois Tollway can’t seem to stay in the good government lane

The scandal-prone agency is making a mess of things again, trying its best to prove it shouldn’t exist as an independent agency.

Sun-Times file

The scandal-prone Illinois State Toll Highway Authority keeps trying its best to prove it shouldn’t exist as an independent agency.

If it wants to survive, the tollway needs to clean up its act, in a hurry.

In the latest mess, the tollway has restructured its leadership in a way that has everyone scratching their heads. As was discussed at a Senate Transportation Committee subject matter hearing Tuesday, Tollway Board Chair and CEO Will Evans has taken direct authority over some top staff members away from $220,000-a-year Executive Director José Alvarez, who was hired by the tollway board members. Some of those who are scratching their heads fear the tollway is headed for another calamity.

Most management consultants would say having a part-time board chair usurp part of the day-to-day operating authority from a full-time executive director is a bad idea. The role of a chairman is to lead the board of directors and help the board of directors come up with good policies and approve the budget. It is not to micromanage a sprawling organization.

That Evans gave himself ultimate authority over procurement as part of the changes should raise a red flag, some observers say, because that is where a lot of government shenanigans have taken place in the past. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who appoints the tollway board members, must step in and sort this out.

Spendthrifts with taxpayer money

When the Illinois Tollway was created, it was thought that many of the tolls it collected would be paid by out-of-state truckers who wanted to use the Tri-State Tollway to circumvent Chicago and its traffic. The tollways have since evolved into arteries that serve countless motorists commuting to their jobs. Because the tollway authority collects and spends the public’s money, it should be as transparent, efficient and careful as possible about how it spends its toll revenue.

Instead, over the years, the public has seen two top executives skim $240,000 from a tollway land deal, an exclusive tollway-only double pension for top tollway staff, allegations a former chairman used a tollway helicopter to visit his girlfriend and the construction of a palatial tollway headquarters in Downers Grove. The Illinois Tollway also has been a patronage dumping ground and a source of patronage contracts. Remember former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s chief fundraiser Tony Rezko’s pal getting tollway oasis contracts despite owing the state $359,639 in unpaid business taxes? Or John “Quarters” Boyle, who looted $4 million from the agency?

For the work it does, the tollway signs massive contracts, which get less oversight from state lawmakers than they might if they were part of the Illinois Department of Transportation. With a little more oversight, for example, maybe most of the automatic payment machines the tollway bought about four years ago for more than $20 million — yes, that’s money tollway users paid, one toll at a time — wouldn’t be sitting unused and gathering dust today.

Questionable changes on how the tollway management is structured don’t inspire confidence everything will be done in a transparent and cost-effective way.

The changes “seem to be confusing who is charge of the operations of the tollway with who is in charge of governance and oversight.” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation. “The benefit of having [the tollway authority] as a separate entity has become less and less apparent. It’s time for the state to consider modernizing and folding the tollway into or combining it with the Illinois Department of Transportation.”

In a letter obtained by the Daily Herald, former Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Ross and former Chief Procurement Compliance Officer Dee Brookens told tollway board directors that Evans engages in “continuous inappropriate conduct, overreaching authority and abuse of power.”

When the tollway authority was created, it was not expected to be a permanent agency. If it doesn’t get its act together, that’s an idea Springfield should revisit.

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