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updated: 9/12/2011 10:13 PM

Route 53 panel reviews the big job ahead it has

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The work of determining whether Route 53 should be extended into central Lake County or dropped once and for all officially began Monday with the inaugural meeting of a special blue ribbon advisory council.

That nearly all of the 25 panel members made their way to the Lake County permit facility in Libertyville was regarded as a good start to what is expected to be an intense process to make a recommendation next spring to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.

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Extending Route 53 more than 12 miles to connect with Route 120 has been considered and studied in one form or another for half a century.

But with the project under the planning auspices of the tollway and its possible inclusion as an "emerging priority" in the recently approved 15-year, $12 billion capital plan, the directive is to decide one way or another.

"Before we can build anything, there are several questions to answer and this is what the council is here to do," said Kristi Lafleur, tollway executive director.

As it stands, $126 million has been set aside in that document for studies involving the Route 53 extension and an Illiana expressway from the Illinois/Indiana line to I-80.

What's different from past efforts is inclusion of friends and foes of the idea in a single group, laden with a diverse lineup of heavy hitters. They represent a variety of interests, from environmental watchdogs to building trades to regional planners.

Monday's two-hour session involved introductions and an overview of the history and challenges regarding the project. Principles to guide the process, such as minimizing environmental impact, were introduced and a schedule set.

Members also were assigned to working committees to deal with funding and traffic evaluation, design and land use, and how the route would coexist with the surrounding environment.

Innovative thinking was stressed as an integral part of a plan that also would involve elements of mass transit.

"This will be something quite different than what's been done elsewhere in the state," said George Ranney, co-chairman of the council, who has opposed the project in the past. "There are new ideas out there about how to build roads."

But the need for a clear consensus also was noted. Tollway Director William Morris, a Grayslake resident who was in the audience, said he looks forward to what the panel will determine.

Morris, who had submitted an alternative capital plan involving a smaller toll hike and including Route 53 as a project to be built immediately, emphasized "this is a major issue that has to be resolved."

"We either have to come up with a consensus or we just need to take this off the table," he said. "You have a big job, and this isn't just for show."

Meeting materials and other information will available at www.illinoistollway.com. The next meeting is Oct. 12 at the permit facility.

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