Illinois State Toll Highway Authority harmonizes transit, tollways
BY KIMBERLY ELSHAM For Sun-Times Media
Kristi Lafleur, the Illinois State Tollway Authority, executive director, said she’s been working to make the Tollway “not only a toll road” and to “break the glass wall that exists between transit and tollways.” | GIL LEORA ~ FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
The Illinois State Tollway Authority, headquartered in Downers Grove, is a leader in electronic tolling and most recently won approval for $12 million dollars in a capital plan to be spent improving Chicagoland toll roads over the next 15 years.
The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, headquartered in Downers Grove, has been an innovator in the country. It was a leader in electronic tolling and most recently won approval for $12 billion in a capital plan to be spent improving Chicagoland toll roads over the next 15 years. Since April 2010, Kristi Lafleur, the Tollway’s executive director, has been the woman behind how we get around.
Lafleur said she’s about bringing people together, which is something she’s done since she was young. Growing up in Norfolk, Neb., she was interested in government and always civically involved. There, she started a student advisory council that involved the city council by placing students at the meetings. She then attended DePaul University in Chicago and studied political science and English.
“My roles since college have really been about problem solving,” she said. “My liberal arts education has really taught me to problem solve.”
Paula Wolff, chair of the Illinois Tollway Authority board of directors, said she met Lafleur about eight years ago, when Lafleur was in state government. Wolff was on the board that selected Lafleur as executive director.
“She’s brought an urgency and focus to the Tollway,” Wolff said. “She assembled a leadership team. Some remained, but she also hired additional replacements of people. From my perspective, she has provided extremely good staff work to the board. The board, the meetings and the kinds of things we discuss are more substantive.”
“Frankly, there’s a self interest at stake here that we can’t ignore — people don’t like to drive in congestion,” Lafleur said. “We know that when we add a lane, we’re popular when we do it, but within ten years’ time, those lanes are taken up by traditional traffic.”
So now, she said, she’s been working to make the Tollway “not only a toll road” and to “break the glass wall that exists between transit and tollways.” To that end, one thing Lafleur emphasized is collaboration.
“We have tended to have a lot of agencies all functioning in a vacuum and not cooperating, which is very hard on the people who are trying to use the transportation,” she said.
“I think that’s it’s evolved within the last year and a half particularly with this board and our directors and our role in the regional transportation network.”
“Ultimately we’ve seen a lot of projects in this region held up because local or environmental groups haven’t been involved. We’re making sure we have all parties at the table,” Lafleur said. “You have to be honest with yourself by inviting people who agree and may not agree with you… It is the most rewarding. I think if you can manage it, you can get a better result.”
She attributed collaboration to a success she had when she was chair of the Midwest High Speed Rail Steering Committee in 2009.
“I was really excited that we were able to get so many states to come together to leverage those HSR funds, and so many states to set aside their narrow state interest to come together.”
On the Tollway side, Lafleur said the Tollway’s transparent capital management system involved the public. It was ultimately was key in the Aug. 25 approval of funds for rebuilding the Tollway system, which includes upgrading the Jane Addams Memorial Tollways (I-90), the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) and I-57 interchange, the Elgin O’Hare West Bypass as well as planning for new projects such as the Illinois Route 53 extension.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people, and Kristi is among the most effective,” Wolff said. “She’s very diligent, very thoughtful and extremely personally committed to doing good analysis and having processes that include a lot of people.”
“She’s so devoted, that she put off her wedding for a year, which I found incomprehensible,” Wolff said. Lafleur finally did marry last June.