The Land of Lincoln generates a litany of complaints from worn-out truckers

By Mark H. Reddig
Associate Editor

Home to one of the nation’s largest cities, sitting at the center of our national transportation system and home to countless industries, Illinois should be a Mecca for truckers.

Instead, many truck drivers would probably agree with scientist Ashley Montagu’s description of its largest city: “Hell has been described as a pocket edition of Chicago.”

The past few years have brought a cascade of legislation and regulations that make truckers feel about as welcome as itching powder in the Sunday wash. 

The hits have included extra trucking fees, increased tolls on highways long ago paid for and a split speed limit that just won’t go away.

Some truckers have protested. Many have called state officials, demanding relief. Others have either closed up shop or simply left Illinois for greener pastures.

What’s the matter with Illinois? Here’s what truckers have to say:

Tolls and consequences
In January, Illinois radically increased truck rates on the state’s Tollway. For OOIDA member Jack Kifer of Waverly, IA, it was the last straw. 

After more than 22 years hauling in and around Chicago, Kifer changed jobs. Now, he will never have to haul through the area.

“My toll bill would have gone from $150 a month to frankly about $650 a month,” he said. “As an independent owner-operator, I cannot afford to pay those kind of tolls.”

When the hikes first kicked in, Kifer proposed that truckers protest by paying tolls with nothing but nickels and dimes.

“I think there are ways that we could legally protest the way that the transportation industry in general is being treated in the state of Illinois,” he said. 

Another way he protested – he sent back his IPass transponder, with a note. 

“I was lied to, I was led to believe if I bought a transponder from the state, that our tolls would not increase,” he said.

Can you spare some change?
Some say “it’s the little things that count.” In Illinois, it’s the little inconveniences that add up. 

When Bob Cummins, an OOIDA member from Branford, FL, hauled a load of jet engines to O’Hare International Airport in February, he had not been into Illinois in some time and was not aware of the toll increase. 

He had enough change on him for the old, lower toll, but the only other currency he had on him was a $100 bill. The toll taker wouldn’t take it. 

Instead, Cummins received an envelope to mail in the cash – at four booths in a row.

“I just couldn’t get over it that they would not accept my $100 bill,” he said. “It’s legal tender anywhere in the world – except for Illinois.

“If they’re going to be in the business of charging a toll, they should be in the business of making change.”

A splitting headache
Despite volumes of research to the contrary, Illinois seems permanently wedded to the concept that it is safer for trucks to travel 10 mph slower than the cars around them. 

But in recent years, Illinois lawmakers saw the light. In 2003, the General Assembly approved a bill that would have eliminated the split. In 2004, Sen. George Shadid, D-Pekin – a widely respected power in the Statehouse – put his name on a uniform speed bill.

The result each year was the same. Trucking interests such as OOIDA enthusiastically supported the bills. They passed by wide margins. 

But each time, Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the bills, and the General Assembly failed to override the vetoes.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, summed up the reaction of many in the trucking industry: “When you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with something else.

“It’s a prime example where scare politics and hysteria trumps common sense and sound judgment.”

Whaddaya mean no receipt?
Twice a week, Christine and Chris Vanmeerhaeghe, OOIDA members from Grain Valley, MO, run to Chicago from Miami, hauling cut flowers to “mom-and-pop florist shops” throughout the area. 

When they run on the Tollway, some exits have only unattended, automated toll gates, leaving only two options – pay cash or use IPass. The Vanmeerhaeghes decided long ago to not use IPass. But with cash, they did not get a receipt – not good at tax time. 

Chris said that after one trip, the couple stopped at a Tollway office to ask how to get receipts. Chris offered the couple’s manifest as proof they had used the Tollway and paid the toll.

“He goes, ‘we don’t give out receipts; if you want a receipt, get the IPass,’ ” Chris said. 

“That’s kind of a scam, you know. You gotta pay $3 and some-odd cents every time you get off there. When there’s no attenda nt, you just gotta put the change in there, and they don’t issue a receipt.”

Not in my backyard …
Shortly after Tollway rates increased, truckers began to divert onto other roads, especially U.S. 41 – which passes through the district of state Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest.

When that happened, Garrett urged measures to discourage truckers from using U.S. 41, which is part of the federal highway system and a truck route.

The State Police added patrols and tightened enforcement. Weigh stations reportedly increased their activities and lengthened their hours.

OOIDA member Brian Calhoun, Grayslake, IL, saw the increased enforcement firsthand, including truck inspections during hours the stations were normally closed, and scales open at odd hours, such as 4:30 a.m.

Garrett also worked out a deal with IDOT to place signs – based on current state law – directing trucks to move to the right lane on U.S. 41. An official with Garrett’s office said compliance would be “voluntary.”

However, when Land Line checked, a different story emerged. 

State Police spokesman Lincoln Hampton told Land Line that truckers who did not stay to the right would face $75 fines. The law says all slower vehicles should stay to the right, but trucks were singled out, he said, because “the truck traffic is usually slower traffic anyway.”

‘Money out of the pocket
In late 2003, state Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Charleston, noticed a trend: “The fact is we’re losing trucking jobs in Illinois. Something is causing small businesses to leave.”

For some truckers, that something was Gov. Blagojevich’s signature on SB841.

The legislation set up the Commercial Distribution Fee – a $1,000 surcharge on truck registration fees. Designed to help balance the state’s anemic budget, it set off a firestorm.

Hundreds of truckers attended mass meetings. Many called for demonstrations. Some wanted to block the highways.

“It’s like you go to the movies, and once you’re inside watching your movie, they say you pay $10 extra or get out,” Chicago trucker Martin Chavez said at that time. “To them (state officials), it’s only numbers … To us, it’s money out of the pocket.”

Eventually, officials voted to roll the fee back, but not entirely. And the rollback won’t be entirely effective until 2006 – far too late to entirely repair the damage. Some carriers shifted registrations out of state. Some truckers moved. Some operations closed their doors. 

By June 2004, figures from the Mid-West Truckers Association showed that Illinois truck registrations had dropped by 16,852 in one year.