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Road to Ruin/The Reel World

: Do we really need another tollway?

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The maps in Howard Learner's office tell the story all too well: since 1960 the cornfields of Lake County have been plowed into parking lots, as thousands of industrial jobs have left Chicago.

The maps, which Learner and his associates created on their computers using census information, illustrate a profound demographic shift, with the population center of the metropolitan area moving beyond the city. The explanations for the flight are debatable. But almost everyone agrees it's been made easier by a web of publicly financed highways.

And now the state's proposing to hit taxpayers for at least $2.5 billion to build new highways--tollways, actually: the extension of Route 53 through Lake and McHenry counties to Wisconsin and the extension of I-355 south and east through Will County to Indiana. State officials say the tollways are needed to divert traffic from congested suburban thoroughfares. "If you drive in Lake County you'll know how congested those roads are," says Dave Loveday, press secretary for the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which oversees the projects. "This is overdue."

But Learner says the tollways will be economic disaster for the city, triggering more flight. "They're building a second outer beltway and there is a predictable series of events likely to occur," says Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. "They're exacerbating the trends of jobs and people leaving the city for suburbs. This is not theory but demonstrable history based on irrefutable evidence."

In addition, there's a heated debate about the possible environmental devastation of paving wetlands and cornfields. And many Lake and Will County residents say the new toll roads will make congestion worse--by opening the area to more development and encouraging more people to drive. In short, say tollway opponents, Chicago taxpayers are being asked to subsidize their city's demise as the state pays billions of dollars to create more traffic congestion, kill trees, add more toxins to the air, and in general make life more miserable for everyone except the lawyers, engineers, and construction crews who feed from this public trough. Learner's organization is trying to rally opposition to the toll roads in Chicago as well as the suburbs.

"It brings more traffic, pollution, and sprawl into the area," says Allen Stubitsch, a Mundelein resident fighting the projects. "People don't want this. We have to show people in Chicago how a suburban project affects them."

At the center of the controversy is the state tollway authority, a bottomless source of patronage for Republican politicians. Originally created in the 1950s, it was supposed to phase out after the money borrowed to build the Tri-State was repaid. That promise was broken years ago. Instead, the authority began to spend the tolls generated on one toll road to borrow more money to build new toll roads. "The work never stops," says Robert Michaels, staff attorney for the Law & Policy Center. "There's too much money involved to stop."

The tollway authority is well connected to the leaders of state Republican politics. Among its nine-member board, appointed by the governor, is Arthur Philip, brother of senate president and Du Page County GOP leader James "Pate" Philip. Robert Hickman, the agency's former executive director, was a key fund-raiser and hometown friend of Governor Edgar. According to an article by Robert Heuer in Illinois Issues magazine, Hickman dispatched about $2 million in bond business to Gayle Franzen, another GOP honcho and the authority's former executive director. (Franzen is now the chairman of the Du Page County Board; Hickman stepped down from the authority after being indicted on charges of corruption.)

Tollway officials contend that their budget is met from tolls. But a 1994 Sun-Times article by Deborah Nelson revealed that tollway authority costs are also financed by general state revenues. Nelson wrote that the authority had enough surplus in the 90s "to build a $25 million headquarters, buy $4 million in furnishings and spend $30,000 on employee gifts and picnics."

As Learner notes, the opulent headquarters in Downers Grove is located at 1 Authority Drive and is nicknamed the Taj Mahal. "Everyone calls it that," says Learner, "even the authority's supporters."

Money to study the current tollway expansion proposals was approved by the General Assembly in June 1993, as legislators were rushing to complete business and head home for the summer. The Democrats agreed to back the authority's proposal in return for money for the city's cash-starved schools.

Lake County officials have long looked for solutions to traffic congestion. But critics of the tollway extensions contend there is no proof that they will help. "Just the opposite--most studies show that highways are magnets for traffic. If you build them people will drive," says Mike Truppa, a research associate for the Chicago-based Law & Policy Center. "The real solution is to widen the roads that are already there."

To fight the tollways, Truppa has been working with community groups in the suburbs. Resistance has been strong.

"These roads will be killing the quality of life that we came here to find," says Stubitsch. "I came here from Chicago because I wanted to live in the country. There are still coyotes and deer and wildlife out here. I don't want to pave it over."

The proposed roadway would run through Grayslake resident Helga Ziegler's apple orchard, uprooting more than 1,500 trees. "There are over 400 houses that get destroyed and more than 40 nature preserves that get destroyed under the proposal," Ziegler told a reporter for the Daily Herald. "Let's open our mouths and say, 'My God, I don't want this because there are people who live here.'"

As many as 200 people have attended some of the protests, and their efforts are starting to pay off. Politicians, even Republicans, are starting to speak out against the tollways, and the authority is showing signs of backing off. "I want to emphasize that these are only proposals," says Loveday. "We're studying all options for relieving the congestion. This is only one option."

But Stubitsch is dubious of such talk. "They're spending millions of dollars to complete these proposals," he says. "We've seen this before. The farther they go the more they spend, and the harder it is for them to stop."

The Reel World

When last seen in these pages, Jeff Spitz was a recently arrived refugee from Los Angeles completing a documentary on Roosevelt University (Neighborhood News, March 21, 1986).

At the time he was wondering whether to stay in Chicago or return to his native land, where at one point he led the life of luxury, hanging poolside with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Norman Lear.

Anyway, his Roosevelt film won a local Emmy and he decided to stay. In the subsequent years he's finished about ten documentaries and he's now launching his most ambitious effort of all. It's a series called This Is My World. In each 10-to-20-minute segment, Spitz gets Chicago children to open up in front of the cameras. (Two of these features will air on the Channel 20 program Weekend TV on October 29.)

"I want to create a series about kids in the city who are doing really remarkable things," says Spitz. "These are the stories that will never see the light of day because they're not about sex, drugs, or gang violence."

His unique talent is to get kids to relax and open up. In most segments you can hear him asking questions from behind the camera.

One segment tells the story of Charles Shipp, a baseball player at Chicago Vocational High School; another is about a gathering of precocious young poets, most of them teenagers, who want nothing less than to "change the world."

But by far his most accomplished piece is the one he's still putting together. It tells the story of Priscilla Horton, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Spitz met Horton a few years back when he was filming a documentary at Austin High School. Over the course of a year he filmed Horton in all sorts of settings: walking through the school, sitting in a class, alone in her bedroom reading poetry. He also filmed her at a meeting last spring in which schools superintendent Argie Johnson announced that the Board of Education would take control of Austin because of its miserable aca-demic record (99 percent of its students do not meet national standards in writing). "We are here to help you help your children," said Johnson. Within a few weeks Johnson was ousted, as Mayor Daley seized control of the school system. Austin has been through three principals since that meeting. The new school board promises to make good on Johnson's vow.

Horton was part of the 1 percent who did meet the national standards, although she's skeptical about using tests to measure a student's potential. "I don't think of myself as a number," she said at one point. "When I hear that I think of my friends. I know a lot of kids who dropped out."

Early on in her senior year, she told Spitz that she wanted to be the queen of her school prom "because you get to keep the crown. I want the crown." She's a tenacious young woman, likening herself in a poem she wrote to an "old story that keeps reiterating itself."

She did, by the way, win the crown, earning the distinction by selling more raffle tickets than any other girl student. The film shows Horton in a silky evening gown dancing with her friends at the prom, the crown on her head.

At graduation, she delivered the valedictory. Of the 400-plus students who entered with her as freshmen, only 88 would graduate. She told her classmates to cling to their dreams.

"Everyone has at least one gift," she says near the end of the show.

"Have you figured yours out?" Spitz asks.

She pauses and shrugs. "I don't know; I'm still looking for mine," she says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): phot/Jon Randolph.

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