Route 53 extension backers rally tollway

If the Illinois tollway is feeling like the popular kid in class these days, it's small wonder.

Thursday, Lake County leaders lobbied Illinois State Toll Highway Authority directors to take under their wing the extension of Route 53, joining a crowd of other communities asking the agency to adopt particular projects.

The draft proposal the tollway is considering would expand Route 53 by 12.5 miles from its terminus at Lake-Cook Road to meet up with Route 120, tollway planning Chief Rocco Zucchero said. This would hook up with an improved 14 miles of Route 120 from Route 41 to east of Route 59, including a bypass in the Grayslake area.

"There's a lot of challenges associated with the project," Zucchero said.

These include houses built in proximity to the proposed highway and offsetting the loss of wetlands, he added.

But "there's no single project that does more to relieve congestion from a regional perspective," he said.

Area mayors, Lake County Board members and state lawmakers called the plan essential to easing traffic and jump-starting the local economy.

"This will improve the quality of life for residents who experience gridlock every day," Lake County Board Chairman Suzi Schmidt said.

Bill Baltutis, the executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Lake Cook, said extending Route 53 will benefit not only Lake County but also communities to the north currently suffering from drive-through traffic.

Buffalo Grove Mayor Elliott Hartstein said his town was "impacted by the illogical terminus of a major roadway." Fixing the problem, he said, "is not a question of if; it's only a question of how."

Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder said her town is hard-hit by people cutting through neighborhood streets.

"We've lived with this since Route 53 was put in, and we want relief," she said.

Supporters also pointed to a recent referendum in which a majority of voters endorsed the project.

But Long Grove resident and former Trustee Ted Lazakis said the referendum failed to inform people how much the project would cost and warned it would be a drain on finances.

"(The) congestion is a problem caused by failed planning," he said.

Hawthorn Woods resident James Felice said his house lies in the path of the new roadway and informed tollway directors "there's still a great deal of opposition."

The tollway is in the midst of reviewing what new construction projects to undertake. Some options include the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and western bypass, Tri-State and I-57 interchange, and Prairie Parkway connecting I-88 and I-80 in the far western suburbs. Officials expect to make a decision later this year.

The tollway estimates extending Route 53 would cost $1.2 billion while the Route 120 portion would cost about $1 billion for a total of $2.2 billion. One possible payment idea would incorporate congestion pricing such as car-pool lanes or charging more for driving at peak times.

Although previous plans indicated a six-lane, elevated highway along Route 53, Zucchero said the agency was considering more environmentally friendly alternates. One concept involves building a four-lane highway with a landscaped median allowing for drainage. The agency would also incorporate mass transit into the plan.

Long Grove has long fought the Route 53 superhighway plan, but Village President Maria Rodriguez said the town backed the Route 120 option. She wanted to learn more about the four-lane concept, adding "Long Grove wants to be part of the discussion."

Environmentalists with the Liberty Prairie Foundation asked tollway leaders to consider endangered species that would be affected by construction.

But state Rep. Sid Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican, said the project was crucial to generating economic development.

"The other endangered species is people who've lost their jobs," he said.