The $245 Million Cook County Bond Issue

In November of 1954, as Illinois Governor Stratton’s tollway commission prepared a proposed toll network, the Cook County Board asked the commission to consider the county’s already established River Road Expressway location for portions of the Tri-State Tollway.  The commission had already selected a Tri-State alignment further west along the DuPage-Cook County line.  At the request of the governor the tollway engineers studied the proposal and within a week rejected it on the basis of projected cost and construction time.  The move by the county board was part of a public campaign by the county to show that the commission was not following the previously agreed upon plan and that tolls were unnecessary because of the anticipated increased federal funding.  The county turned up the heat in the days before the tollway rejection.  On a radio panel in late November with the Commission Executive Director, Vice Admiral Francis Old, Andrew Plummer the Administrator for the Highway Department said that the county was not against tolls when no other money was available but the Eisenhower Administration had just allocated $25 billion for Interstates and their urban extensions negating the need for toll financing.  Plummer added that if the tollway was intent on building a bypass route, it should be on the 1941 River Road alignment previously agreed to by the state, an alignment that was six miles shorter and would generate twice as much traffic as the one proposed by the commission.  In a presentation earlier in the week Bill Mortimer had proposed that the tollway build some of the radial expressways before undertaking a bypass route. 

In the weeks after the rejection by the commission a flurry of newspaper articles about the tollway appeared in Chicago newspapers.  One enterprising reporter from the Chicago American used a newfangled helicopter to observe the relatively open corridor favored by the commission and compared it to the county proposal four miles further east.  He said the commission route would skirt Western Springs and Elmhurst and involve the acquisition of five hundred homes and a few business properties.  While the River Road alignment “is sprayed with homes, factories and other high bracket real estate improvements”. The article goes on to talk about the major obstacles viewed from the air on the county alignment including a $1 million utility plant in Maywood, factories, fire houses churches and schools in several communities. 

The rest of the news that the public read was not as favorable to the tollway.  Democratic Cook County State’s Attorney John Gutknecht charged that the commission had planned the tollway in extraordinary haste and secrecy.  Representative Jack Bairstow from Waukegan another Democrat had contacted each member of the house asking for a review of the tollway act because of the commission's secrecy in developing their plans.  Commission Chairman Howell countered that these folks simply hadn't been paying attention and lamented the fact that one elected public official (Gutknecht) would be fighting another (Attorney General Latham Castle).  But Howell agreed that the bonds would not go up for sale until after the Legislature had met in January.  Also in this last month of 1954 a suit was filed contending that the seizure of land without review by the courts violated constitutional rights.  Despite these problems, as the new year began, the commission was optimistic that construction would get underway in 1955.  A December Chicago Daily News article was not as optimistic, suggesting the property owners suit could delay the timetable by as much as a year, a prognosis that turned out to be quite accurate.

In January of 1955 the legislature scheduled hearings to review the legislation that they had passed in 1953.  The following month the Governor, who was feeling the heat from the legislature and was still negotiating with Cook County over their insistence that the tollway be built according to the 1941 plan, offered Cook County 20 million dollars per year in state funds for the county to use in construction of its superhighway system.  Since funds from the earlier $70 million bond issue had run out, he felt his offer of an additional six million dollars per year was one the county could not refuse.  But Cook County Board Chairman Dan Ryan had a better idea, similar to what he proposed in November of 1952, the $20 million the Governor offered should be used along with the county MFT to float a $245-million-bond issue that could kick the superhighway construction into high gear. 

The Governor and his staff knew that the early opening of the county’s radial superhighways was critical to the financial success of his Tollway as was the cooperation of the Cook County Highway Department.  The commission would be building 75 miles of roadway within Cook County and they needed their cooperation if they were to proceed using the accelerated schedule they anticipated.  Before the Governor went along with Ryan’s idea he received assurances that the county would push ahead on those segments critical to the financial viability of the tollway and not impede the work of the commission. 

Once an agreement was reached, there was a short debate about taking the bond issue to a public referendum-a referendum was held for the state supported highway bond issues.  But both men were in a hurry and a referendum would cause a delay of as much as 16 months.  The fact that the Illinois Supreme Court had sanctioned tollway bonding with no referendum and that Cook County was contributing to the bond retirement with their allotment of MFT funds (so it was not strictly a state bond) provided the Governor with the opening to forgo a referendum.  For the two men the most important reason to forgo a referendum was because they felt they already knew the results-Illinois residents wanted expressways now!  For public consumption Ryan quoted the Governor as saying he was in favor of the bonding proposal because it would fit in naturally with the plans of his state toll road commission.  In May of that year, in testimony before the Illinois House, Superintendent Bill Mortimer talked about how the money from the proposed bond issue would be spent.  He described the priority expressway system that would be built to serve downtown Chicago and continued by saying the system would not only connect with the Illinois Tollway, but would also link up with the planned $80 million Chicago Calumet Skyway Bridge providing needed revenue to both facilities.  Most importantly he said that the bond issue would decrease the time it took to complete the priority system by 10 to 20 years. This would hasten the construction of an expressway on the south side, service the airports sooner and speed the development of new “mass transportation facilities in all proposed routes” according to the department newsletter.  With the agreement Stratton moved the Cook County bond issue authorization quietly through the General Assembly with support from both sides of the aisle.  According to Governor Stratton’s biographer David Kenney, in June the Governor turned to Bill Mortimer as he signed the legislation in Springfield and said, ”I assume that you will be too busy building expressways to be troublesome about my toll road”.  Late that year Dan Ryan went to the County Board and asked for $17.5 million over and above the bond issue money to speed up construction of the county's piece of the Northwest Expressway.