The Tollway That Didn't Happen

In December of 1954 the Cook County Board agreed to transfer the right-of-way they had previously acquired for the Northwest Expressway from Cicero to O’Hare and Kingery Expressway west from the Calumet Expressway to Halsted Street to the new tollway commission.  The latter became part of the Tri-State Tollway and nothing much else was heard about it.  The Northwest right-of-way was a different story when it became part of the Northern Illinois Toll Highway and was included in the plan approved by commission in late 1954.  At the time it fit with Bill Mortimer’s notion that Cook County needed help in building radials and their priority for the Northwest Expressway was from the Chicago CBD to the Edens Superhighway.  In December 1954 the county said they had acquired 95% of the right-of-way needed in a program that had begun in 1949. 

In that same month the first publicly stated objection to the Northwest route becoming a tollway was voiced on the editorial page of ChicagoTribune.  The reader noted that if the expressway became a toll road there would be no free high-speed access to O'Hare.  He said he could not figure out how city and county officials could agree to that.  In 1954 the commission wanted the 7-mile sector because it would be directly connected to downtown via the section under construction by the county.  The resulting traffic would provide much needed income and act as a feeder to the rest of the system.  No doubt the commission also felt that the cash starved county would have trouble building both legs in time to help the tollway when it first opened. 

In April of 1955 Richard J. Daley was elected mayor of Chicago.  His approach to governing was decidedly different than his predecessor Martin Kenelley who governed in a rather patrician manner compared to the aggressively active Daley.  The new mayor had a vision of revitalizing the city with major public works projects and probably was not in a position to thwart the commission’s decision to include 7 miles of the Northwest Expressway in their system prior to becoming mayor.  But as mayor he saw a tollway in the city as an impediment to his plans and certainly a political liability when the rest the expressway system would be free within the city.  At the same time, with 1955 lost to litigation the tollway was off to a slow start.  According to the commission the lost year cost them about $25 million in additional right-of-way and construction expenses.  This made them susceptible to proposals from the city and county to return this section to the county to construct a free road.  When the legislature approved the Cook County $245 million bond issue in the spring of 1955 the tables had turned, now the county was in a better position to build the road than the tollway. 

The tollway also discovered that although the county had acquired much of the right-of-way that was needed their annual report for 1956 noted the county had “taken no steps to demolish buildings or remove tenants residing in this area”.  According to the commission, 426 families resided in the parcels within the proposed ROW.  The commission immediately began a program of removal and clearing with a targeted completion of March 1957.  In February 1957 the commission reported that they were pressing forward “regardless of whether Cook County or the commission eventually constructed the section”.  The financial status of the county and the commission further widened in June of 1956 when President Eisenhower signed the bill creating the Interstate system providing 90% of the money for Interstate routes which included many on the Cook County priority system but not the tollway. 

But the change would not be easy.  In May of 1956 Commission Chairman Wyman said that time was running out and the agreement with the county that the 7 miles would become a tollway still stood and their construction schedule required an immediate change so they could meet the 1958 opening date.  In a Chicago American article Wyman contended that in February the commission had proposed having toll booths only at Cicero and Mannheim leaving a median for transit if the county and city would pay for the extra cost of right-of-way and structures.  By May that proposal was no longer in play and according to Chicago American an “anonymous toll commission spokesman said, if Mayor Daley will quit stalling we can work out a plan to make this stretch a free highway.

Daley was feeling the heat from the well-organized Northwest Federation of Improvement Clubs and the commission knew that.  The Chicago American said he had mollified the northwest side with a tentative agreement to make the Chicago portion of the Northern Illinois Tollway free after the bonds had sold.  The desire by the city to include CTA service in the median squashed that agreement when the tollway could find no legal way to provide the right-of-away for the CTA. 

But the rancor of spring had turned pleasant by summer when things got worked out.  In August 1956 the tollway signed an agreement with the city and county to return the 7-mile strip to them.  In a public ceremony on August 18 the tollway gave a check to the county for $4.8 million for the right-of-way along with a check for $20,000 to the Forest Preserve for property along the Des Plaines River.  As part of the agreement (called Resolution 272 by the commission) the county agreed to expedite their construction so the free road could be completed by December 31, 1958.  (Despite Bill Mortimer’s prodding of the county contractors to match the pace of the tollway contractors the link to the CBD did not happen until 1960.)  The agreement required the consent of 66? % of the bondholders, an activity that would take until December to complete.  The agreement required the commission to finish the right-of-way work and to design the 7 miles of new roadway.  In December, with the approval of the bondholders, $33.4 million was removed from the construction account and placed into a bond purchase account.