Drivers tooling through the Illinois countryside will be able to nudge the gas pedal a little harder next year after Gov. Pat Quinn overcame safety concerns and approved legislation Monday that will raise the speed limit on rural interstates to 70 mph.
Dodging a possible veto showdown, Quinn signed the measure despite opposition from the Illinois Department of Transportation, state police and leading roadway safety organizations, who feared increased mayhem on the highways, especially between cars and trucks.
"This limited 5 miles-per-hour increase will bring Illinois' rural interstate speed limits in line with our neighbors' and the majority of states across America, while preventing an increase in excessive speeding," Quinn said in a statement.
The six-county Chicago region — home to some of the nation's busiest interstates — would be allowed to set lower speed limits under the law, as would two Illinois counties near St. Louis. The speed limit would increase on the Illinois Tollway but also could be kept at current limits on some stretches, according to the governor's office.
The speed limit in Illinois is 55 mph in metropolitan areas and 65 on rural highways. But on Jan. 1, Illinois will become the 37th state to approve limits of 70 mph or higher since the national speed limit was repealed almost two decades ago.
That couldn't come soon enough for Mark Bohlin, 45, of Tinley Park, who says he spends a lot of time on the road.
"It's a no-brainer," he said. "Increase the speed limit. Everyone already drives about 80 miles per hour on the highway. A lot of other states already have higher speed limits and it seems to work for them."
It's not yet clear whether the new maximum speed limit will be in place in some of the state's most populous areas. Under the measure, Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will could keep their maximum speed limits below 70 mph if they so choose.
Opponents argue that higher speeds will lead to an increase in fatalities and make it more difficult for large trucks to stop to avoid collisions.
After initially expressing safety concerns, Quinn decided to sign the measure after studying the issue over the summer, an aide said. Ultimately, Quinn decided there were enough protections in the bill, such as allowing heavily populated counties to opt out and lowering the threshold that drivers could be charged with excessive speeding, defined as driving at least 31 mph over the posted limit. The new law lowers that threshold to 26 mph over the limit.
Quinn also didn't want Illinois to fall behind other states with faster speed limits, fearing it could interfere with commerce, according to an assistant.
There was a direct political consideration as well. The measure passed earlier this year with veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. So if Quinn had decided to reject or change the bill, he could have faced yet another high-profile standoff with legislators already angry at him for withholding their pay over inaction on the pension crisis.
"I'm very pleased that he saw fit to sign it," said sponsoring Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove. "I believe that this is one small step to help bring Illinois into the 21st century along with most of the other states in this country that have speed limits of 70 or higher."
State Transportation Department officials estimate it will cost $150,000 to $200,000 to update about 900 speed limit signs across Illinois. Tollway officials said they expect to spend nearly $18,000 on new signs.
The price isn't the cost critics of the law are concerned about.
"Raising speed limits is politically popular, and higher speed limits get people to their destinations faster," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "But we have to recognize there's always a safety trade-off. There's no free lunch. And more people will die on the roads as a result."
Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said his concern is maintaining a continuity between all the surrounding counties.
The Kennedy Expressway (Interstate 90), he said, runs through several counties, and he doesn't think it would be fair for each county to impose a different speed limit.
"It will be something we will be studying," Lawlor said. "It seems, in talking to my peers in Cook and the collar counties, we are all in kind of an evaluation mode."
Will County board member Walter Adamic, D-Joliet, said he expects the board's discussion will center on safety.