After years of debate, it looks like the extension of Route 53 into Lake County could become a reality. A significant majority -- 20 out of 22 members of the Illinois tollway's Route 53/120 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council -- voted Friday in favor of a concept plan for a four-lane parkway on Route 53 up to Route 120 with speeds of 45 mph.
"It's the most environmentally responsible infrastructure project of its nature in the state," council Co-Chairman George Ranney said of the plan, which calls for green space and features elements designed to reduce noise and pollutants.
"I do believe it will protect the character of Lake County and ultimately the character of Long Grove," Long Grove Mayor Maria Rodriguez said.
The favorable vote could be the "consensus" tollway leaders said they wanted to undertake the project, which has long lain fallow because of environmental concerns and a lack of funding.
"This is a tremendously positive step forward," tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said.
The next step will be taking the report to the tollway board.
"We need to refine the cost estimates and look at the traffic and revenue projections," Lafleur said. "There's still questions. There's three alternatives for the Route 120 alignment."
One other hurdle is a funding shortfall of at least $800 million.
Project costs range from $2.1 billion to $2.4 billion. The council is recommending paying for the road and improvements to Route 120 between Route 12 and the Tri-State tollway with 20-cent-per-mile tolls on the new parkway. The new road would be about 12 miles on the Route 53 portion and 14 miles on the Route 120 segment.
Another option is "congestion pricing," meaning motorists would pay higher tolls to use an express lane in rush hour.
Also under consideration is adding Lake County tolls at Route 132 and the Wisconsin border, and increasing the Waukegan toll, or charging Lake County residents gas or sales taxes, which a number of local leaders don't favor.
But the most controversial financing plan involves tolling a freeway -- Route 53 between Lake-Cook Road and I-90. Several Cook County mayors have already cried foul over the idea.
"To take any action like that ... we'd need to look at the revenue projections but also improvements required on that portion (of Route 53) for it to be tolled," Lafleur said. "A lot more work is needed. It's far from a foregone conclusion."
Casting negative votes were council members Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and Jacky Grimshaw with the Center for Neighborhood Technology. They argued that the draft plan left too much of the funding gap unresolved and that a 20-cent-a-mile toll was too steep and penalized lower-income drivers.
"Will people be able to afford to travel on this road?" Grimshaw asked.
Whether to extend Route 53 north into Lake County has been a thorny issue for years. Most residents agree local traffic is a huge issue, particularly given that the terminus of Route 53 at Lake-Cook Road spills cars out onto area roads. And many think extending the road will be a boon for the economy.
But there are also concerns about flooding, land acquisition and what happens to communities the new road divides, as well as the environmental issues.
Liberty Prairie Foundation Executive Director Michael Sands said he voted to move the concept forward, not to approve the parkway.
"This is obviously an incredibly important natural resource not only for the county but the entire state. But there are ways to use the investment a road brings to actually enhance the environment," Sands said.
The council's report leaves open various options for the Route 120 improvements that involve bypassing some significant wetlands, such as the Almond Marsh. In 2009, however, a majority of voters agreed to expand Route 53 in a referendum.
"What we're doing today is laying the groundwork for the future," Lake County Chairman David Stolman said.