Just when it seemed the way had been cleared for the long-envisioned extension of Route 53 through Lake County, officials find themselves facing up to $2.5 billion in unplanned expenses. The logical question follows: Where can you come up with that kind of money in this or any economy?
The Illinois Tollway set up a group to ponder that question, but at a meeting this week, the Illinois Route 53/120 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council received a vivid demonstration of just how difficult it will be to find an answer.
Local officials bristled at the notion of a special taxing district or a dedicated local gas tax. One speaker predicted "a major war" if tolls were established on the extension. Others decried the unfairness of adding a new toll on a portion of I-290 and still others the inappropriateness -- not to mention the political difficulty coming on the heels of major toll increases earlier this year -- of increasing tolls throughout the system.
The reaction, in short, was pretty much what was predicted a month ago when planners first began scratching their heads over the staggering sums they suddenly found themselves considering to address environmental and flooding consequences of constructing some 26 miles of parkway linking and expanding routes 53 and 120.
And the initial prospect -- indeed, just about the only one that's been mentioned so far -- was equally familiar: the faint hope that Illinois Tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur can scrounge around inside the $12 billion bag of money produced by the most recent toll increases for a variety of projects in hopes of finding $2 billion in scraps and crumbs to divert to Route 53. That hardly seems possible, but at least LaFleur seems willing to try, and with luck, perhaps the effort will produce some revenue that can be contributed to the project.
The important idea to keep in mind -- established and reaffirmed in the 2009 vote in Lake County to extend Route 53 -- is that the project must go forward. No answer is not an acceptable answer, however tempting it may be for officials to throw up their hands in despair of finding a solution that is both equitable and sufficient.
As Doug Whitley, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, told the advisory council this week, "there have to be trade-offs." In that spirit, it may well be that the solution to the Route 53 funding crisis will not be any single alternative but some combination of ideas that spread out the costs across appropriate swathes of geography and time. Surely too, planners must revisit the parkway proposal to find ways to scale it back to a more affordable range.
The Blue Ribbon Advisory Council is working toward a May deadline to present its report. Given what we've seen so far, it could almost offer its conclusions today: The tollway must either scrap the extension altogether or begin quickly putting together a proposal to pay for it that is almost certain to make everyone unhappy. The first option not being viable, let's hope they find a way at least to minimize the pain of the latter.