If it wasn't tricky enough reaching consensus on extending Route 53 into Lake County, the group advising the Illinois tollway on the project received a supersized challenge Monday -- overcoming a possible shortfall of up to $2 billion.
Tolls alone aren't enough to cover building the road, planners told members of the tollway's Illinois Route 53/120 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council.
"It's a sobering situation," said council Co-Chairman George Ranney, who is president of the civic group Metropolis Strategies.
To fill the gap, multiple options are on the table, including raising sales or gas taxes in Lake County, charging tolls on the existing Route 53, and dedicating some of the tax money from higher property values and new development to the project. Some participants also floated the idea of a systemwide toll increase.
Or the council could recommend the road not be built.
Some officials on the committee, which includes elected leaders, planners, environmentalists, and business and labor interests, said that's not an option.
"The residents of Lake County are demanding this," Lake County Chairman and council Co-Chairman David Stolman said. "If we don't do it, (traffic) will get worse. If we don't do it now, construction will get more expensive in the future."
Although a majority of voters endorsed extending Route 53 north in 2009, and many interests want the economic development it could bring, there are significant environmental and flooding concerns, along with opposition from towns that could be carved up by the expansion.
But designing an environmentally friendly project that doesn't alter the character of communities is driving costs up.
Projected expenses of building a four-lane parkway with speeds of 45 mph connecting to an improved and widened Route 120 with a possible bypass of Grayslake would cost up to $2.5 billion. That doesn't include the interest payments on selling bonds to fund the work. There's also the cost of operating the new parkway.
The new road would be about 12 miles on the Route 53 portion and 14 miles on the Route 120 segment. The tollway is considering charging either 20 cents a mile or a variable rate of up to 40 cents a mile. The 40 cents would be for congestion pricing where motorists pay more to drive during rush hour.
But under either scenario, the revenue would contribute only about 25 percent of the expenses, leaving an estimated $1.6 billion to $2 billion gap in the tollway's bonding capacity -- its ability to borrow money and pay it back with tolls.
Several officials suggested the money should come from the entire tollway system, not just Lake County.
"We've been paying for tolls in DuPage and Cook counties for 48-plus years," Buffalo Grove Mayor Jeff Braiman said.
Regarding the possibility of a toll increase to fund Route 53, tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur did not make any commitments. Instead she noted that the agency might have some extra revenues from a toll hike instituted in August to pay for a $12 billion capital plan that could subsidize the Route 53 plan.
"There is some capacity to fund emerging projects, but it's premature to say what the board's action might be," Lafleur said.
The council will continue the discussion as it faces a May deadline to offer recommendations to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Board.
The group also talked about paring back the project and cost-cutting. But the environmental features like the fact the extension would be a parkway are what make it more expensive. And without environmental construction it's unlikely the council will reach the consensus tollway leaders want before building the project.
With those variables, Long Grove Village President Maria Rodriguez wondered "is it even worth continuing the conversation?"
Illinois Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Doug Whitley said the shortfall wasn't unsurmountable. "It costs money to do things. The question is do we want to go forth and find a way," he said.
The option of charging tolls on the existing Route 53 is problematic as the federal government would require improvements, which could cost as much as tolls would raise, some tollway officials said.