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Article updated: 10/22/2013 12:38 PM

Route 53 extension backers must bridge $2 billion gap

By Marni Pyke

Exactly what Lake County backers of a Route 53 extension are willing to give and to give up could make or break the project, which faces an estimated $2 billion shortfall, officials said Monday.

Last May, a coalition of county leaders, environmentalists, planners and the business community reached general consensus on extending Route 53 north as a tollway after years of dissension.

Now, the hard part starts, as estimates show tolls on the new roadway will pay for only a fraction of the up to $2.5 billion cost, leading to a $1.9 billion to $2.3 billion gap.

"We know there's a huge gap that needs to be filled to make this a reality," said Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Douglas Whitley, co-chairman of the Illinois tollway's Route 53/120 finance committee.

"We don't expect the federal funding for this to be significant," he added at a meeting in Libertyville.

Plans call for a four-lane, 45 mph road with tolls of about 20 cents a mile.

Revenue to overcome the shortfall could come from a variety of sources such as adding tolls on the Tri-State Tollway at Route 132 and the Wisconsin border and increasing the Waukegan toll.

"Are there ways to leverage the rest of the tollway system to support a project like this?" asked tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur.

Other controversial ideas include levying project-specific gas or sales taxes in Lake County or tolling the existing part of Route 53 between Lake-Cook Road and I-90, which several Cook County mayors have called dead on arrival.

But tollway planners also pointed to the example of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, which the tollway is extending to the airport along with building a western bypass.

The project was originally $5.8 billion, but state, county and local leaders agreed to cut back on interchanges and lanes, resulting in a $3.4 billion cost.

A $300 million shortfall exists on the Elgin-O'Hare, which is partly being bridged by towns giving up land needed for the road in lieu of cash and applying collectively for scarce federal funds.

"There is a playbook," tollway planner Rocco Zucchero said. "We got everyone to agree scaling back was acceptable."

Any dramatic changes in the Route 53 proposal, however, could damage the consensus reached last year. For example, the parkway design that protects nearby wetlands is driving up the cost but it also achieved a buy-in from environmental groups.

The parkway would head north 12 miles from Lake-Cook Road and connect with Route 120. The proposed 14-mile Route 120 segment would involve upgrading the route to a four-lane road between Route 12 and the Tri-State Tollway with a Grayslake bypass.

The committee is expected to refine funding options in the summer, vote on a recommendation in November 2014 and report to the tollway board by the end of 2014.

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