Most of the attention drawn to Rod R. Blagojevich’s arrest has focused on the Illinois Governor’s attempt to sell the Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat. Also according to the indictment, on October 6, a wealthy contractor for the the giovernor’s “Tomorrow’s Transportation Today” promised to make a $500k donation to the Friends of Blagojevich campaign account. Nine days later, the governor announced the $1.8b program. It’s centerpiece: the addition of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to the Illinois Tollway. “I could have made a larger announcement but wanted to see how they perform by the end of the year,” Blagojevich said in private conversation. “If they don’t perform, fuck ’em.”
According to his most recent campaign disclosures filed, Blagojevich raised $1.9m for his campaign in the first six months of 2008. FBI agents seized the campaign ledgers and suggested that Blagojevich’s goal was to reach $2.5m by the end of the year. After bugging the Blagojevich campaign office, agents intercepted a phone call where the governor emphasized to contractors the need to raise the additional campaign money before January 1, 2009. On that date, a new ethics law designed to stop “Pay for Play” will prohibit companies with state contracts worth more than $50,000 from making donations to officials that approve contracts.
Green Lane construction is not scheduled to begin until 2010. Under the current plans, contractors would be given $400m in taxpayer money to install extra tolling infrastructure on the existing, already tolled lanes on 41 miles of Interstate 294 (the Green Lanes would not create any new capacity). The extra tolls imposed on drivers would would then be handed to contractors to build expensive interchange replacement projects for the benefit of campaign donors with ties to the concrete industry.
This is not the first scandal involving HOT lanes. In 2002, the Orange County, California Transportation Authority paid the contractors who built the 91 Express Lanes $207.5m to get out from under a cleverly written non-compete contract. The lanes only cost $139m to build. Earlier this year, an Australian tolling contractor admitted it had made $177k in illegal campaign contributions to Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D) and members of both parties in the General Assembly. Contractors that run HOT lanes stand to pocket millions even from legitimate deals because tolling by its nature is inherently inefficient. The best run toll roads in the country spend an average of 22 percent of the tolls collected from drivers on nothing but toll collection overhead (details).