Brakes put on push for 70-mph Chicago area speed limits

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The chances of being able to legally drive 70 mph on Chicago-area expressways and tollways anytime soon hit a major speed bump Friday after a Senate panel rejected Republican U.S. Senate nominee Jim Oberweis’ push to allow higher speeds in the city and suburbs.

The 2-1 vote along party lines effectively kills legislation the state senator from Sugar Grove is carrying to clarify a law he helped pass last year that allowed 70-mph speed limits —  up from 65 miles per hour — on rural interstates.

Oberweis had intended last year’s law, which passed overwhelmingly, to apply to Chicago and suburban expressways and tollways. But Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration interpreted it to apply to less heavily used arteries only outside Cook and the collar counties.

The senator’s new, clean-up legislation wouldn’t have mandated higher limits on city and suburb routes such as the Stevenson Expressway or Jane Addams Tollway, but it would have empowered the Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois State Toll Highway Authority to impose them if the agencies wished.

But Quinn’s administration opposed Oberweis’ new legislation, and the governor’s Democratic allies voted it down Friday because of safety concerns.

Oberweis, who is facing incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin in the general election, is now angry at Quinn but stopped short of accusing the governor or anyone else of playing politics with the bill to help Durbin.

“This is a governor who has this phrase about following the will of the people. Well, nothing could be clearer that he’s doing everything he can to subvert the will of the people with this,” Oberweis told the Chicago Sun-Times, noting there already is pervasive speeding on Chicago-area expressways and tollways.

“This is about recognizing in the law what those speeds are now, and trying to limit the amount of damage we do to our society by having laws that are totally ignored by people. If you’ve driven I-88 and there is no traffic congestion, have you ever seen cars going 55 mph? No. If you’ve travel on I-355 and if there’s not rush hour congestion, have you ever seen cars going 55? No,” he continued.

“All we’re trying to do is recognize the situation and make the law align with reality because when you have fully ridiculous laws that people completely ignore, it tends to breed contempt for the law, and I’m worried it makes people less likely to follow other laws,” Oberweis said.

Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, who cast one of two “no” votes in the Senate Executive Committee subcommittee that heard Oberweis’ bill Friday, said he based his vote on the belief his GOP colleague was reneging on commitments made in last year’s speed-limit bill.

“My recollection of the debate over the 70-mph speed limit bill itself was that it just wouldn’t apply in the Chicago metropolitan area,” Harmon told the Sun-Times. “It struck me the senator was attempting to do just that. 

“We have a density of traffic in the metropolitan area that’s different than we do on I-55 halfway to Springfield. It’s difficult enough here to navigate the flow of traffic moving at the current speed limits. A 15-mph jump could be fairly traumatic in terms of day-to-day driving in a congested urban area,” Harmon said.

Sen. Antonio “Tony” Munoz, D-Chicago, was the other “no” vote Friday.

Oberweis, who defeated GOP rival Doug Truax in Tuesday’s primary by more than 91,000 votes, could still amend his legislation. But realistically, he said he may have to wait to address the issue until after Illinois has a new governor – assuming Quinn loses and Oberweis is not on his way to Washington as a U.S. senator.

“In a worst-case basis, we’ll have to wait until January when we have a new governor installed,” Oberweis said when asked what was next with his legislation.

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