By Ben Joravsky

The first time Joe Ann Bradley visited state tollway headquarters in Du Page County, people turned their heads and stared. “It was like they never saw a black woman before, especially one with braided hair,” says Bradley. “I was the biggest surprise of their day.”

Now she has a bigger, more radical surprise in store: Bradley’s asked Governor Edgar to appoint her to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority’s nine-member board of directors.

A community activist from North Lawndale, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Bradley wants the state to stop building new tollways and to turn the ones it has already built into freeways. In other words, she wants to get on the authority’s board so she can pretty much put it out of business.

The board’s currently filled with white suburbanites, most of them Republican and all of them men. They see themselves as loyal foot soldiers dutifully following Governor Edgar’s command to spend the tolls they now collect to build new tollways.

“Joe Ann would be the tollway board’s Jackie Robinson,” says Robert Heuer, an antisprawl activist. “Her appointment would break gender, racial, and city barriers. Her mere presence would disrupt the crony network that’s existed for years.”

The world Bradley represents is far removed from the sheltered suburban environment most tollway honchos inhabit. Her father worked in a warehouse, her mother on an assembly line; Bradley grew up in North Lawndale, graduated from Providence St. Mel, earned a degree in economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and went to work for a bank. “I lived in Oak Park for a time–you could pretty much say my ex-husband and I were buppies living in the burbs,” says Bradley. “But I had a strong desire to do something for the neighborhood I came from. And in 1993 I moved back.”

By then North Lawndale had undergone at least three decades of wrenching dislocation, as riots, neglect, and disinvestment turned a thriving working-class neighborhood into a slum. Working with her local parish, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Bradley helped set up the Community Action Group, a not-for-profit neighborhood organization that devotes itself to such local matters as the fight against drugs, crime, and prostitution.

“It’s tough going–we’re all so isolated,” she says. “We were fighting illegal dumpers only to learn that the major dumper, John Christopher, was in fact a federal government mole setting up a sting. We still have one of his old dumps at 21st and Kostner–they still haven’t cleaned it up. It’s like the people who are supposed to be working with us are actually working against us.”

Bradley got involved with the tollway issue through a chance meeting with Heuer. “I was telling Bob what was happening on my end of town, and Bob started telling me how I have to look at the bigger picture,” says Bradley. “So I decided to see what the toll roads are all about.”

Unwittingly, she stumbled on a secret source of Republican patronage, the lubricant that greases an entrenched political machine. Most Chicagoans are oblivious to its inner workings, brainwashed into believing that Republicans, unlike Democrats, don’t believe in big government or cushy patronage jobs. In fact, each year the tollway authority showers hundreds of millions of dollars on engineers, lawyers, financiers, and other well-connected apparatchiks, who in turn kick some of it right back in the form of campaign contributions to their favorite Republican politicians. It’s not necessarily illegal, just hypocritical, particularly in contrast to all the antigovernment rhetoric spewing from Republican politicians over the last few decades. Three of the tollway’s most recent directors–Gayle Franzen, Robert Hickman, and Thomas Morsch–were GOP fund-raisers (Hickman, by the way, was indicted in 1995 for allegedly scheming to bilk the tollway authority of $240,000). One board member, Arthur Philip, is the brother of state senate president and Du Page County GOP boss James “Pate” Philip. Kirk Brown, Edgar’s secretary of transportation and an outspoken tollway booster, is an ex officio board member.

Ironically, the tollways were supposed to be phased out after the money borrowed in the 1950s to build the Tri-State was paid off. Instead legislators, lately prodded by Edgar, have authorized the authority to spend tolls generated on one road to build new ones. In 1993 the authority got the go-ahead to begin construction on a multibillion-dollar tollway that would cut south from Wisconsin, through McHenry, Lake, and Will counties to Indiana. The new road would bypass Cook County, extend two existing tollways (I-355 and Route 53), and create an entrance to Edgar’s dream project: a Peotone airport.

Edgar argues that new tollways are necessary to divert the traffic overload that already exists on many suburban thoroughfares. But Bradley contends that new tollways may ultimately be self-defeating in the war against congestion. “The more roads you build the more development you get and so the more roads you need–it’s like a circle,” she says. “We at least need better planning. We can’t just pretend there’s no consequence to building new tollways.”

In December of 1995, Bradley and several other members of her North Lawndale group made their first visit to tollway headquarters, an opulent structure located at 1 Authority Drive in Downers Grove and nicknamed by tollway opponents the Taj Mahal.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw–the board was all white men,” says Bradley. “I thought–Have we gone back in time? Are they operating in the 20th century? We were there to express our concern about tollway expansion, and the board told us that they were there to carry out the directions of the governor and state legislators, which were to build more roads. Basically, they said you’re wasting your time talking to us, but you can talk to us anyway. How’s that for democracy in action?”

Although Bradley was outraged by what she discovered, most Chicagoans have been indifferent. “Even my own state legislators told me, ‘Oh, the tollway authority–that’s, you know, more of a white, suburban thing,'” she says. “I said, ‘What, blacks don’t drive on the tollways? Blacks don’t pay tolls?’ It’s upsetting to think that we keep spending more money to pave over vacant land when poor neighborhoods like North Lawndale need rebuilding. It’s time we take a larger perspective on these things. It’s time we consider how new tollways affect Chicago.”

Tollway authority press spokesman Dave Loveday says he doesn’t know if any board members live in Chicago, though he points out that some of them work here. “Each board member brings important aspects to the board,” says Loveday. “They each bring unique experiences.”

On November 22 Bradley wrote a letter to Edgar noting that five positions become vacant in May and asking him to appoint her to the board. Edgar has not responded, though he may not be able to ignore the diversity issue much longer. This week the Daily Herald ran a story titled “Toll authority board: all white and all male,” in which an Edgar press spokesman said the governor’s considering appointing “both women and minorities.” Beyond one or two window-dressing appointments, however, most GOP strategists figure Edgar’s under no pressure to change tollway policy, since suburban voters want new roads regardless of the cost.

But they may be overlooking growing opposition to new tollways, as antisprawl activists in Will, McHenry, and even Du Page counties nervously consider the consequences of unlimited growth. Furthermore, Bradley’s antitoll rhetoric ought to be popular with suburban commuters who pay at least 80 cents a day in tolls. In any event, Edgar can’t just build where he wants. A group of environmentalists and antisprawl activists won a temporary victory in their suit to block the latest I-355 extension, after U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon, a Reagan appointee, ordered the authority to prepare a more thorough environmental impact statement.

“The state has always argued that we need new tollways because their studies show sprawl is already happening,” says Robert Michaels, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a plaintiff in the suit against the state. “But we noted that the crucial question, ignored in their studies, is how much sprawl would we have if we didn’t build any more tollways? And the judge [Conlon] agreed the state should consider that question.”

Conlon’s ruling was hailed by a surprisingly forceful Chicago Tribune editorial applauding her for wiping “a smug look from the faces of certain state officials who have acted from the outset as though they had all the political power they needed to push through…the toll road” and for raising “one of the most vexing questions in American urban planning: To what extent do such beltways cause wasteful sprawl that would otherwise not occur?”

Bradley says it’s time someone on the board raised these same questions. “You can’t just build and build forever,” she says. “You can’t just keep taking people’s tolls, and you can’t just ignore the city.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Anne Bradly photo by J.B. Spector.