The Illinois tollway's new chief is neutral on the Route 53 extension for now, wants to prioritize customer service and hopes to stabilize an agency that's been churning for months.
Executive Director José Alvarez, who attended his first board meeting Thursday, will be paid $223,000 annually, 3.7% more than his predecessor Elizabeth Gorman, who received $215,000.
"I took a pay cut. That's how excited I am about the opportunity" to work at the tollway, said Alvarez, former chief operating officer for the Chicago Housing Authority.
Alvarez joins a rookie tollway board picked by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who supported the ouster of the previous slate of directors after a series of Daily Herald reports about tollway spending and patronage hiring at the agency.
Alvarez "came in on May 1 and hit the ground running," Chairman Will Evans said at Thursday's meeting.
"I am committed to investing in our team and building on its strengths," Alvarez said.
He likened the tollway's situation to the housing authority, which had "five CEOs in five years." Former tollway Executive Director Greg Bedalov, who was paid $186,000, left in February 2018 and Gorman stayed for 13 months.
Changing leadership can affect morale and "you have to bring stability," Alvarez said.
One of the toughest questions before the agency is whether to extend Route 53 north into Lake County. Residents along the proposed Route 53 corridor are split and the tollway is spending $25 million for a controversial study.
Alvarez said he's been briefed on the issue and will meet with Lake County stakeholders Friday. "Right now, I don't have a position on it. I'm not stopping the study today," he said, noting it's only his second week.
Alvarez's previous salary was $241,996 at CHA, according to the Better Government Association.
He also held high-level positions with Chicago Public Schools and with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for Washington, D.C., schools.
He lives in Chicago with his wife, six children ranging from college age to 18 months, and a dog.
Asked if he uses the toll system, Alvarez said with a smile, "I do now."
Pritzker is personally contributing to the salaries of key administration staffers, saying to wants to retain top talent, but is not subsidizing Alvarez's pay.