The Illinois tollway board's newest director, Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens, said he's ready to dig into details of the agency's latest ambitious project to widen I-294.
Gov. Bruce Rauner assigned Stephens, a fellow Republican, to the powerful board June 25. He fills a position vacant since July 2017 when Rauner chose not to reappoint union leader and Director James Sweeney. Stephens' term ends June 25, 2021.
The move gives Cook County members a two-thirds majority on the board.
This spring, the agency began work on a $4 billion Tri-State Tollway redo that includes new lanes, ramps and connections. Stephens said it's important to work with towns such as Hinsdale, where officials are concerned about the project's scope. Overall, however, he said the improvements will trigger economic growth.
Widening I-294 "will be a benefit to everyone. ... Look at what it did to I-90," Stephens said, referring to reconstruction of the Jane Addams Tollway. "It's great for us ... providing more arteries for people to flow to Rosemont."
After spending years advocating for an off-ramp from the tollway onto Balmoral Avenue that was completed in 2011, Stephens said he's "sympathetic" for other community leaders seeking access to the tollway system to stimulate development and tax revenue.
Stephens, paid $260,000 a year as mayor to oversee village operations, will receive an annual $31,426 tollway salary. He said he would opt out of any pension benefits if he can. Fellow directors and mayors Craig Johnson of Elk Grove Village and David Gonzalez of Chicago Heights, who are paid $40,000 each by their municipalities, also receive the tollway stipend.
Stephens, 55, had previously served for five years on the Pace board of directors and currently is a member of the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.
One controversy to come before the tollway board is the proposed extension of Route 53 north into Lake County. While supporters seek traffic relief and faster commutes and hope for commercial development, opponents fear it will cause environmental pollution, is too costly and will devastate established neighborhoods.
"I'm a newbie," Stephens said, adding he needed to learn more about the project. "I'm sure there's good arguments on both sides. When and if I need to cast a vote, I'll be very cautious, listen to everything ... and make the best decision for transit and the people of the region as a whole."
Rauner's pick of Stephens brings the number of tollway directors from Cook County to six. Two others are from DuPage County and a ninth is from the Rockford area. There are nine directors plus two ex officio members.
The lack of a Lake County member troubled former tollway Director Bill Morris, a former mayor and state senator from Grayslake.
"Until Rauner, there had always been a Lake County member," Morris said, adding the omission treats Lake County residents as "second-class citizens."
Rauner's office did not return a request for comment. The governor had described Stephens as "an economic force in the Chicagoland area, driving innovation and commercial development."