Tuesday, December 15, 2015


It's no secret that the State of Illinois is in a real fiscal pickle these days. Thanks to some monstrous debt and political gridlock, Illinois has been operating without a budget for months now. While the battle wages in Springfield, parks and museums have closed, nursing homes haven't been receiving their Medicaid payments, and now it looks like November pensions are up in the air.

Heck, even lottery winners have been receiving state-sponsored IOU's instead of winnings. Just last week, experts downgraded Illinois' credit rating to a status just a few points above "junk." In the world of fiscal reputations, some states are Macy's and Microsoft. Our state is more like a really mediocre garage sale after all the good items have been picked over. Things are really bad.

But they're about to get better. Illinois seems to have a new plan designed to get things back on track and alleviate the crushing debt that's crippling our fair state.

That plan, it appears, is to make ME pay for it all.

Last month, my friends and I drove up to Chicago. 2015 has seen some pretty monumental events, but none more so in my world than the reunion of the British shoegazer band Ride, whose 1990 album "Nowhere" will always be my pick for the greatest piece of recorded music of all time ever.

Back in June, some of us traveled all the way to New York City to witness Ride's first reunion gig on these shores. So when they finally announced a show in Chicago, going to see them one more time was a no-brainer. It was an amazing night. All my old college friends met up beforehand, traded stories, and spent a care-free evening acting like the rebellious music geeks of yore. It was everything I wanted it to be, with one glaring exception.

When I was in my twenties, going to Chicago and back in the same night was no big deal. But the older I get, the longer that stretch of I-88 becomes. With steely-eyed reserve, I grabbed a cup of coffee and we bravely ventured onto the lonely late-night Illinois Tollway System.

Speaking of being in my twenties, once upon a time the tollway used to be affordable. There are four toll plazas along I-88, and for years they were always 95 cents, 95 cents, 40 cents, and 40 cents. But then two things happened.

The first was iPass. Rather than wait in line for tolls, cars with an iPass can now cruise on through while presumably some kind of space laser dealy scans your car, finds your iPass, deducts the toll amount from your account, and hopefully doesn't make you sterile in the process. The other thing they did was raise the price of the tolls dramatically, especially if you're like me and don't have iPass.

I get to Chicago maybe twice a year, so I've never really prioritized getting an iPass. The result is that the toll plazas that were once 95 cents are now three dollars and some odd change. Without an iPass, by the time you get to Chicago, you've donated almost ten bucks to the tollway gods.

It was 3 a.m. when we rolled up to the Dixon toll plaza that night. The majority of the plaza is monopolized by iPass lanes, so we pulled off to the one "Cash only" lane, rolled down the window, fumbled for the wallet, and... nothing. The lone booth, usually occupied by a scowling person who invariably looks like they hate their job, was empty.

Instead, a sign hung from the door that we tried to read in our semi-lucid state of caffeinated consciousness. It said something like, "Toll booth is unmanned from 2-5 a.m." That was all I made out. There were no obvious directions about what to do. There was no basket to dump money into, no envelopes to take and mail later, and no discernable instructions about what to do when your toll plaza was sans tolltaker.

"Well, what on Earth are we supposed to --"

"AAAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOGGGHHHHAAAAAAA!" said the horn on the gigantic semi truck behind us. HE had discernable instructions for us, and those instructions were to get the (expletive) out of his way. So we did just that, and kept on driving home.

"Weird," I thought at the time. "I guess if they want their money, they'll mail me something."

The letter came this week. I knew what it was the minute I opened it and saw a grainy little mugshot of my car. They want their money, sure enough. ALL SIXTY EIGHT DOLLARS OF IT?!?!?!

It turns out that when you blow a toll, even one that's unmanned without any clear instructions, you owe for the toll PLUS a $20 penalty. News to me. Even bigger news was my letter's claim that this was my THIRD offense, the prior two dating back to 2012. Say what?

I DO have a vague memory of being in Chicago a few years back, getting super stymied by heavy traffic and road construction, and being unable to merge into the cash-only lane. I'll own up to that one, despite it being completely by accident. As to the second infraction? Hand to God, I have no memory of it.

Had the Illinois tollway system informed me of these unpaid tolls in, say, 2012, I would have ponied up promptly. Instead, I'm just now finding out that I owe $68 to cover all three tolls and their accrued penalties. Upon reading the fine print, it turns out that your first two infractions aren't pursued, but they're not exactly mulligans either. At the point of your THIRD infraction, they come after you for all three. Failure to pay at this point results in additional fines per infraction, and then when you hit your fifth blown toll, they come for ALL their money AND your license.

I'm not one to purposely break the law. I don't even remember the second violation, and the third came thanks to an unmanned toll booth that I didn't know the procedure for. Thankfully, I have an opportunity to contest these charges. Yes, pleading my case is as simple as taking a day off work and appearing in a Chicago-area courtroom on a Tuesday in December. So if I want to fight my $68 toll charges, I just have to put $30 worth of gas in my car, spend $20 MORE dollars on tolls, and lose a day's wages. How handy.

Methinks I have no choice but to pay the piper, even though I really don't care for the tune he's playing. Part of me wants to spend $60 to ship them 6800 pennies in spite, but I suppose I'm better than that. I like roads that pay for themselves, and I've always supported our tollway system. I just didn't know I'd be the one actually SUPPORTING it. I'm all for Illinois fixing their budget woes, but I'd prefer that fix to come without tollway extortion.

So the next time you're on your way to Chicago, don't even THINK about missing one of those tolls -- not even when your view is obscured by the dust cloud I'm kicking up while I toodle my way across the state on any toll-free back road or gravel path I can find. I think I've given Illinois enough of my money for a while.

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