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updated: 7/16/2011 7:20 AM

New life for Route 53 extension

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The notion of extending Route 53 into central Lake County has been around so long it has become a punchline.

During a recent visit with his 101-year-old aunt, state Sen. Terry Link said the conversation ranged from how she had never seen the Cubs win a World Series in her lifetime to the Route 53 extension.

"She's wondering which one will come first," the Waukegan Democrat quipped Friday during the launch of a rejuvenated focus on the controversial plan.

Interest in the project has ebbed and flowed in the last half century, but the attention it will get from a powerhouse new panel suggests a decision will be made to pursue or scrap the idea in a timely fashion.

"I'm getting too old to fight this anymore. I want something done and I don't want to wait a year," Link said.

And if the decision is to move ahead, the innovations and designs built into an extended Route 53/Route 120 corridor should become a national model, those involved insist.

Sensitivity to the environment and a suggestion of how to pay for a project likely to top $1.8 billion are other facets of the latest push to determine whether an extended Route 53 is the answer to traffic congestion.

A smaller footprint for a boulevard-style road, innovative design to lessen the impact on wetlands, public transportation and "congestion pricing" are among some of the possibilities that could be incorporated.

"It's possible to do something that's not an eight-lane expressway but provides congestion relief," said Kristi Lafleur, executive director of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.

Those innovations were not considerations even a few years ago, explained George Ranney, who with Lake County Board Chairman David Stolman was named co-chair of the Illinois Route 53 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council.

The panel of more than two dozen members, whose names were released Friday, includes local and state elected officials, and key members of regional planning, environmental, business and labor groups.

Friday's session, attended by more than 100, was one of five capital planning forums hosted by tollway officials in the suburbs. But the focus was Route 53.

The tollway is considering future plans and has included the Route 53 extension and the Illiana Expressway as the two longer-term possible priorities for $16 billion in projects.

The extension of Route 53 north from Lake-Cook Road will be considered in tandem with an improved Route 120 from the McHenry County line east to Almond Road.

Public and political support remain strong in many quarters from motorists frustrated with traffic congestion to local leaders, who say transportation improvements are needed to keep and attract jobs in Lake County.

But circumstances -- mainly the involvement of the tollway -- are day and night from the past.

"It's different because all of the groups, including the naysayers, are at the table," Lafleur said.

"There's a reason we have the environmental group sitting next to the builders," Bill Morris, a tollway director and former Waukegan mayor and state senator, said after the forum. "We're not saying yes, we're not saying no. But we can't just say, "Here it comes, take it or leave it.'"

Ranney, president and CEO of Metropolis Strategies, a Chicago-based policy group, and Prairie Holding Corporation, developer of the environmentally focused Prairie Crossing community in Grayslake, cautioned that opponents who did not attend Friday's session could tie the project up in court.

"The only way we'll be able to get agreement from organizations with deep pockets that have fought this in the past is if we do this right," he said. "If that doesn't happen, we're just kidding ourselves."

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