Tollway explores how to pay for Route 53 extension

Reinstating the Deerfield Toll Plaza on the Tri-State Tollway (I-94/I-294) or a new gas tax in Lake County could help bridge a nearly $2.87 billion shortfall in paying to extend Route 53.

But members of an Illinois tollway advisory group didn't make any decisions Tuesday as they analyzed some difficult scenarios to pay for stretching Route 53 north to Route 120 as a four-lane parkway with a speed of 45 mph.

The tollway board of directors has the final say on whether the agency will adopt the project.

Even though toll rates would be about 20 cents a mile on the new road, compared to 6 cents elsewhere, the project can't pay for itself.

But other options such as a fuel tax or adding tolls on the north part of the Tri-State could be a tough sell unless the public buys in, advisory group members acknowledged. Officials said if the fuel tax idea was pursued, half of the proceeds could be used for other needed road improvements in the county.

As for new tolls, possibilities include increasing rates at the Waukegan Toll Plaza, bringing back the Deerfield Toll Plaza that was removed in the 1990s, tolls at Route 132 near Six Flags Great America, and eliminating free ramps on interchanges at Routes 120 and 21.

Extending Route 53 is expected to relieve traffic congestion in Lake and north Cook counties but advisory group members also looked at the impact new tolls on the Tri-State could have on arterial roads and whether it would relieve or hurt traffic.

Marty Buehler, former Lake County transportation chief who is with the Lake County Transportation Alliance, said ideally the group could come up with a scenario that prevents drivers bailing out onto local roads, achieves equity on toll rates and raises enough money.

"We don't want to rush into something ... that's no benefit," he said.

The Route 53 project has been debated for decades but in 2013, a tollway committee with Lake County leaders, environmentalists, business leaders and planners came to a consensus on the parkway concept.

In May, several tollway directors told project supporters they expected Lake County to contribute to the cost, particularly for environmentally friendly elements that would make it unlike other toll roads.

The road expansion would be near some significant prairie and wetland areas. To offset noise, pollution and runoff, the plan calls for features such as the lower speed, drainage systems, and lowering the road. It also includes an $81 million trust fund to offset possible environmental problems in the future.

Monday, another tollway advisory committee considered whether to create a tax increment financing district in an area around the proposed extension that would see economic development as a result.

The proposed TIF district would not encroach on existing TIF districts, planners said. Typically in a TIF district, as property values rise, those additional tax revenues are set aside and used by municipalities for improvements over a 23-year period. The proposed Route 53 extension TIF district would be unique since it spans numerous towns and park or school districts, officials said. It also might require special legislation.

Officials Monday favored an option that would give 75 percent of the TIF funds back to local governments and keep 25 percent for the project. Estimates indicate the 25 percent share of revenues could total between $72 million and $96 million over 25 years. That could possibly be earmarked for the environmental trust fund, officials said. The advisory committee is expected to finish its report by the end of the year.

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How the Route 53/120 extension could be funded

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