Tollways (or turnpikes), which gained momentum in the 1930's when nearly 400 miles were built in the eastern United States, appeared to have been rejected as a means of financing superhighways by the end of World War II. But the success of a variety of toll-financed roadways on the Eastern Seaboard and the continued success of the Pennsylvania Turnpike made more and more state legislatures view this as a viable means of building expressways despite the BPR’s continued opposition to the concept and the relatively cold reception it received by state engineers. The movement soon spread westward with Colorado and Oklahoma opening toll roads by 1953 resulting in what is often referred to as the second tollway building boom. Nearly 12,000 miles of toll roads were eventually proposed around this time, but only about 3500 miles were ever built. Tollway financing peaked in 1953 and 1954 when over 1800 miles had either been built or were under construction while at roughly the same time the states were building 5000 miles of federally-funded interstate at the 50 federal /50 local funding ratio. By the time Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, Thomas McDonald retired in 1953 he had developed a consensus that tollways were acceptable but could play only a limited role in a national highway system and not on the Interstate System. It was not until 1958 that Interstate funds could be used on routes that connected to tollways.
In Illinois between 1944 and 1949 several groups looked at the highway situation in general and superhighways in particular including the Griffen Hagan Commission (interestingly named after the state consultant) the Traffic Problems Commission and the State Superhighway Commission. One of the reports recommended building “extra service roads” as toll superhighways and as the first elements in a state superhighway system. Upon taking office in 1952 Governor Stratton supported that idea. He signed the legislation clearing the way for tollways (Senate Bill 558) on July 13, 1953. By the end of the year he had appointed the three members called for in the legislation, Evan Howell a long time friend of Stratton’s who served with him in Congress and the legislature, Orville Taylor and Chauncey McCormick. The commission selected George Jackson, the state District 10 Expressway Engineer, as Chief Engineer and retired Vice Admiral Francis Old as their Executive Director. McCormick died suddenly in September of 1954 and was replaced by William Wood Prince. Howell became a liability for Stratton when he openly threaten prominent Democrat’s with political retribution if they did not support the commission, submitted a five figure expense account in 1955 and founded an association that demanded financial contributions from potential tollway suppliers and contractors. He resigned when the bonds were sold in 1956 presumably at the urging of the governor. Austin L. Wyman was appointed a director and elected chairman following Howell’s resignation. Charles L. Dearing, personally recruited by Stratton from the Brookings Institute, replaced Francis Old as Executive Director in October of 1955. According to author Kenney “After Howell left the chairmanship of the Toll Highway Commission Stratton took pains to see that it had good leadership.”
The first commission meeting was held in the Governor's mansion on January 3, 1954 and the offices were officially opened in the State of Illinois Building, Room 1800, the following month. By May the Supreme Court had validated the legislation and the commission’s consultant had submitted a feasibility report. The report outlined a recommended expressway system for the entire state of which six routes were found to have potential as tollways. These were:
The Tri-State / circumventing the city and connecting Indiana and Wisconsin
The Northern Illinois / from Cicero Avenue running northwest to Rockford and Beloit
The East-West / from the western suburbs of Chicago to Rock Island
The North South / from the South suburbs to Danville
The Chicago Milwaukee/from downtown Chicago to Milwaukee
The Old National Trail/ from East St. Louis to Terre Haute, Indiana
That summer the consultant firm of Parsons, Brinkerhoff, Hall and McDonald along with Wilbur Smith & Associates conducted a large-scale O & D survey at 53 locations in the region, interviewing a quarter of a million drivers in the process. The consultants were paid $275,000 for their study but had to wait more than a year and a half get the last $75,000 because it was dependent on the sale of the bonds.
The author was a fifteen-year-old temporary employee working in the field office the consultants had setup in Des Plaines. The job got more interesting as the summer wore on when the consultants spent weekends back in Connecticut leaving said employee to “keep an eye on” the 20 college girls coding in the office. Not much coding was done on Fridays, when the mood turned distinctly more relaxed amid shouts of “when in doubt cross it out.” The higher-ups at the consultant firms also “partied hardy” while in the Chicago area, much to the consternation of a succession of elderly field office secretaries.
The final commission recommendation included three of the original six routes recommended, the Tri-State Route, the Northern Illinois Route and the East West Route as far west as Aurora. The recommendation went on to suggest that the East-West should be extended as far as Rock Island if the long-hoped-for Congress Expressway was to be open to traffic within the next four years. The Old National Trail Route would only be considered if the Indiana Tollway Commission agreed to extend it across the state to Cincinnati, which they did not.
Governor Stratton formally approved the engineering report for the Illinois State Toll Highway Commission (ISTHC) on December 23, 1954 capping a year of engineering along with political and pragmatic decisions on the location of the 193 miles of proposed toll highways. The most public of these came about as a result of a meeting the governor had with the Cook County Board of Commissioners on November 29 when he agreed to study the county's proposal for the tollway to use the county’s River Road Expressway alignment from 87th Street to the vicinity of O'Hare Field. As mentioned previously the commission studied the alignment but rejected it because of the increased project cost and the added year and half of construction. Much to the chagrin of the county, the route they selected south of O’Hare used neither their River Road or Tri-state from the 1941 plan, but instead bisected the two alignments. At this point in 1954 O’Hare was not open. According to Ralph Burke, the city’s airport consultant, construction would be completed before Christmas and he hoped to reach agreement on landing fees in early January. But Public Works Commissioner DeMent stated that civil aviation operation could not begin until the control tower’s radar equipment was installed, a task that was about four months off. The commissioner also said that the airlines were preparing a million dollars worth of their own improvements that would permit operations at the new airport to siphon off considerable traffic from over crowded Midway Airport.
Not all proposals were rejected. During the year the commission had agreed to more than 65 miles of changes. One of the more interesting was the relocation of approximately 15 miles of the Tri-State route, another request of the Cook County Highway Department. According to the tollway they agreed to “locate the route east of O'Hare Field” and utilize the planned location of the River Road Expressway as far as the Lake-Cook line. This language suggests to the author that the commission may have started the year with an alignment west of O'Hare Field. If so it would have put the commission's Tri-State route in the same corridor as the Tri-state route in the 1941 plan, so it seems possible that the commission initially considered using the 1941 Tri-state alignment near O'Hare. They had a very pragmatic reason for selecting the River Road alignment north of O'Hare. Cook County had already acquired the right-of-way so unlike the River Road alignment south of O’Hare it would involve a minimum of money and time to acquire the needed property.
In 1949 George Guderley was on one of several CCHD survey parties developing the controlled traverse that would establish the future right-of way in relation to the established property boundaries for the River Road Expressway east and north of what was then the Douglas Aircraft Plant. He said it was a generally pleasant assignment tramping through the heavily wooded Forest Preserve terrain except when the alignment ran through the Des Plaines garbage dump, not a very pleasant place in the summer of the year particularly at the height of the polio epidemic that year. With the completion of the surveys the CCHD began to buy the ROW in 1950. Five years later the county was in a position to sell large portions to the commission permitting them to accelerate their schedule.
Another 20 miles of the roadway was relocated to avoid piercing the Cook County Forest Preserve’s largest holding, the Palos Park Forest Preserve. The following year numerous adjustments in alignment were made to avoid County Forest preserve holdings including moving the alignment of the Northern Illinois Route north to avoid Busse Woods. Mel Amstutz, the energetic Lake County Highway Superintendent, got the commission to avoid several cemeteries in Lake County as well. One change in alignment caused a problem. York Crest Builders sued the commission and the City of Elmhurst because the original alignment established by the commission went through their property known as York Crest Manor preventing them from selling homes and lots. The final alignment of the Tri-State route missed the manor but the plaintiffs claimed the delay caused them a million dollars in lost sales.
As was the usual practice the underwriters for the $415 million dollar Northern Illinois toll revenue bonds required, as part of their contract with the commission, that the Illinois Attorney General issue a non-litigation certificate. Because of that requirement, no tollway engineering or construction occurred in 1955 because each time the commission would try to sell their bonds, a suit or appeal was filed preventing them from being issued.
John Yowell former President of the Illinois Bar Association filed the original suit in December of 1954 for plaintiffs who contended that they were not afforded due process because there had been no opportunity provided for a hearing on the location of the road, which would affect their property. Yowell had persuaded the US Court of Appeals not to dismiss the suit. Later that month the Chicago Daily News forecast that the suit could delay the construction and suggested that the commission not fight the suit but rather amend the tollway law to conform more closely to turnpike statues in other states. At this point the tollway was rather far along to do that and the Governor could not afford the added cost that would have resulted from advanced notice of roadway location with land costs rising so swiftly. Although a three-judge panel denied the original suit, during 1955 appeals were filed each time a bond sale date was set. The litigation preventing the sale of the bonds was finally resolved in January of 1956 when a writ of mandamus was filed by the State Attorney General and granted by the Illinois Supreme Court. The writ compelled the State Treasurer to accept the proceeds from the bonds, which finally restrained the litigants and let the commission proceed with the sale.
With the sale of the bonds on January 23rd the commission quickly moved to organize itself. Under the direction of the new chairman Austin L. Wyman and director Charles Dearing, office space was acquired and the staff immediately began to develop a schedule designed to utilize the construction seasons of 1957 and 1958 to complete the tollway. By the end of the year 75% of the system had been designed. For purposes of design and construction engineering, the 193-mile system was divided into 20 sections with a separate engineering consultant responsible for each. No consultants could have more than one section.
The first construction contract was awarded on August 24 of 1956 on a 5-mile section of the Northern Illinois Tollway north of Cherry Valley, Illinois. The first contract was awarded to the Public Construction Company of Camden, New Jersey for 3 million dollars. All of the construction contracts awarded that year were for the Northern Illinois Tollway including the Fox River Bridge and the Beverly Road test structure. The 1956 annual report predicted a peak work force in the summer of 1957 of 15,000 persons.
The award of those first contracts in August by the commission occurred shortly after they decided to return a portion of Northern Illinois route to Cook County and Mayor Daley awarded the first contract for the Calumet Skyway Toll Bridge. The summer of 1956 would prove to be the start of a once in a lifetime transportation-building boom for the Chicago metropolitan area. By the time it was over new travel patterns for a majority of the residents of the region would be established. The system that was put in place would be a hybrid of earlier plans, which had not included a tollway. In that same summer the Chicago Area Transportation Study completed it’s extensive survey’s of a population of travelers only vaguely familiar with or accustomed to travel on the limited access highways that would soon alter the landscape and change their travel habits.
As the tollway, state, county and city were gearing up to build hundreds of additional miles of expressway, they were finding the steel needed to build the bridges was continuously in short supply. Studies had shown that pre-stressed, pre-cast concrete girders, first used on some of the bridges on the Edens provided a measure of speed and economy in construction. In the spring of 1956, as the tollway construction crews began to amass materials to prepare for the major construction push, they also became concerned with the cost and time needed to acquire the steel girders for the system’s 265 bridges. Before making a decision on the pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete girders, a prototype bridge was built at Beverly Road (a new road with no traffic) over the Northern Illinois Tollway. The Graef and Bender designed bridge was built by the W.E.O’Neil Construction Company of Chicago in the early summer of 1956. During construction and upon completion, various rolling and static tests on the bridge were made for the Commission by structuralconsultant Wiss & Janney Associates. After discussions with the state, the tollway decided to build 200 bridges with the prestressed, precast concrete girders. The tollway referred to them as prestressed, precast concrete bridges because they included a poured in place deck slab. The Commission estimated a four million dollar cost savings and a reduction of 50 days in construction time. A contract was awarded toMaterial Service Company to construct them.
Tollway Chairman Wyman recounted the progress made in 1957 as a period in which almost 60 miles of roadway had been paved despite a late spring start due to persistent and heavy rainfall. Later that spring the commission's consultant let it be known that the money brought in from the current bond sale would not be sufficient to finish the tollway due to rising construction and right-of-way costs. Wilbur Smith was hired to do a traffic study and come up with a recommendation. In February of 1958 the consultant proposed that the tolls be increased from 25 to 30 cents and, on the closed system, the per-mile cost increased from 1.5 to 2 cents per. The commission agreed to raise tolls and, based on this increase in projected revenue, in April sold $64 million in additional bonds. During the year the commission paid out $144 million for construction and completed the awarding of all remaining roadway and bridge construction contracts. A twenty-year lease agreement was concluded with the Standard Oil Company of Indiana requiring them to invest $13 million to provide over-the-tollway restaurants and adjacent auto service facilities. The restaurants were to be operated by the Hawaii based Fred Harvey Company under a ten year subcontract with Standard Oil..
In spite of the year-long delay in the sale of the bonds and in construction problems, part of the system was opened to traffic in August of 1958 when 76 miles of the Northwest Tollway from O'Hare to South Beloit and 30 miles of the Tri-State from the Edens spur north to the state line were dedicated. Both were open in time for the Labor Day weekend traffic. The ceremony for the Tri-State section included a presentation by Director Dearing of a Tri-State Pioneer medal to Mr. Average Motorist selected from those waiting that Thursday evening to enter the tollway on the Edens Spur.
On November 14 1958, an 8 mile section of the Tri-State Tollway from Golf Road north to the Edens spur was opened to traffic followed a week later by 28 miles of the East-West Tollway from a direct connection with the truncated Congress Street Expressway west to Route 47 in Aurora. The dedication of the East-West from Maywood to Aurora involved multiple ceremonies starting at the Farnsworth Road Plaza at 2:00pm with Stratton and Wyman pulling a buggy carrying the 10 year old descendent of Aurora’s first settler and culminated with a reception for 2500 at the commission’s new headquartered at Midwest Road and 22nd Street.
Mid afternoon saw Mayor Daley and Dan Ryan dedicate 2 miles of the Congress Expressway running from First Avenue to the connection with the East-West Tollway. Bill Mortimer who was the master of ceremonies (as he was at most of the of the openings during his tenure as superintendent) noted that this county section of the expressway had been completed five months earlier than estimated to fit with the tollway schedule. He thus kept Dan Ryan’s promise to Stratton in 1955 when the chairman said he would speed up construction of the Cook County expressways to help the tollway. The final 45 miles of the Tri-State opened on December 23 with much less fanfare when a small party accompanied the Governor on a pre-opening tour from the Kingery to the Cermak Road interchange. At the ceremonies in November and December the Governor used the opportunity to point out that the tollway had been built in 27 months and contrasted that with the “latest estimate by the federal administrator of a minimum of 18 years” to complete the Interstate in Illinois. He also pointed out that the $441 million cost was entirely privately financed so tollways “do not compete for the tax dollar.
Toll revenues for the last five months of the year were sufficient to cover administrative costs, which had increased substantially along with the number of staff members operating the system (from 93 to 557). According to Stratton biographer Kenney the toll highway commission provided Stratton with a “patronage carnival” that in June of 1956 included “821 positions-engineer’s, appraisers, attorneys and central office personnel-all exempt from civil service status. Stratton and Pree were involved in filling them all”. (Pree was Stratton’s chief of staff and worked with the Governor on patronage matters.)
Wyman, who had served as Chairman during the construction years, resigned in December of 1958 but remained a member of the commission. By January, after 27 months of construction, the tollway was finished. The commission was able to report later that year that the Illinois system experienced a higher increase in the number of users in its first year than had the other new toll roads in Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The completion of the tollway system at the end 1958 had only a limited impact on a majority of the travel in the Chicago metropolitan area. The only direct link with another expressway of any length was north of Lake Cook Road where the Edens spur connected the Edens with the Tri-State. Parts of the Northwest Expressway would open within a year but the linkage to the central business district would not happen until 1960. Although the East-West Tollway connected directly with the west end of the Congress that section of Congress was only open to 1st Avenue.
Newspaper articles at the time of the initial construction of the tollway referred to it as one of the last facilities built in the so-called “Second Turnpike Era”. These same articles described how a family could wake up, leave at dawn from Rockford and arrive in New York City by midnight that same day and how the expressway would solve much of Chicago's bumper to bumper traffic problems. But that was still a ways off. Before the Indiana Tollway was constructed, Stratton attempted to get Indiana to move it further south and connect with his tollway. Indiana said that it’s surveys showed that motorist’s were headed toward the Chicago business district and refused to change the alignment. The alignment they chose conveniently ended where the Chicago Skyway Bridge terminated at the state line. It was not until December of 1956 that Indiana Governor Craig agreed to build a freeway that would connect with the Illinois Tollway further east to the Indiana Turnpike. Three years later Indiana still did not have the link with the tollway under contract and according to Indiana Highway Commission Chairman John Peters had no plans to connect a free road to the rapidly approaching Interstate in Michigan. The link, called the Borman Expressway, was opened in 1963 east to the Indiana Turnpike but not to the Interstate in Michigan until several years later.
Most of the articles referred to the tollway as a premium roadway especially convenient to suburbanites and geared for recreational travel. The Chicago Tribune remarked that both the Skyway and the tollway would be especially appreciated during the spring touring season. An article in the New York Herald Tribune in 1959 commented that Illinois Tollway traffic volumes set new records each summer weekend now that the service plazas were opened. The over the tollway plazas were describe by the commission in the 1959 annual report as a way for “patrons of the tollway restaurants to enjoy the unique experience of watching traffic flow in both directions beneath them as they dine”. The recreational focus of the tollway would change and the actual trip length drop with the completion of the radial expressway’s in the 60’s making the system a commuter network and altering the home to work travel patterns in the region.
As noted earlier the tollway did not prove to be a political boon for Governor Stratton. He lost in his attempt for a third term in 1960. As early as the 1956 election, when he ran against H. Richard Austin his opponent argued that the tollway should not have happened, the 193 miles should be free, all the governor needed to do was to wait until the 1956 Federal legislation passed. Austin argued that Illinois taxpayers would pay double over the next 40 years for the governor's tollway. Author Kenny says that the condemnation lawsuits associated with acquiring the property for the tollway and the undercurrent of resentment for having to pay to use the facilities were certainly not helpful to Stratton in his third campaign for the governorship.
Many of the governor's staff was surprised when he chose to run for a third term in 1960. The Orville Hodge scandal had hurt him during his first term but his close working relationship with Richard Daley during that time was helpful to his second run when the mayor pitted him against little known banker Richard Austin who some suggested was picked by the mayor to lose. Stratton won by a narrow margin compared to 1952, but by the 1960 election his relationship with Daley had soured and he ran against Otto Kerner a strong candidate with the full backing of the Democratic machine who would carry the state by ? million votes. In that election the Nixon campaign people were evidently looking for a fresh Republican face to run against the Democrats in the gubernatorial election in Illinois, not Stratton. Some have speculated that if Stratton had stepped aside in 1960 and Nixon had won he would have been in the cabinet. Neither happened and author Kenney says that Stratton wanted to be Governor and was not interested in other options so he ran for a third term knowing the odds were against him and lost.