Lake County's Lawlor pulls Route 53 support; study still on?

Monday's stunning announcement by Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor that he's withdrawing support for the Route 53 extension and suggesting instead officials concentrate on a "greenway" corridor leaves the Illinois tollway in the odd spot of championing a project dropped by a prime backer.

But despite the loss of Lawlor's support, the agency intends to proceed with a $40 million to $50 million feasibility study of extending Route 53 north to Route 120.

Reactions were mixed as opponents applauded the change of heart but transportation advocates said it was premature.

Lawlor acknowledged the "time and energy" spent on the project. But a likely increase in a $1.9 billion funding gap and ongoing political gridlock means the county's vision of a four-lane, 45 mph parkway north to near Grayslake would never materialize, he said.

Instead, Lawlor advocated investing in existing roads and creating a trail corridor through the center of the county.

"The financial and political realities have become insurmountable," he said.

Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom was undeterred, saying he expects to hire a firm to conduct an environmental impact study this year. The tollway has already allocated $4 million for planning consultants since it began studying the extension in 2011.

"I am surprised by this (Lawlor's statement)," Schillerstrom said. "But many of the questions that Chairman Lawlor raised would be answered by an EIS. An EIS will take a look at everything. ... It will cast a wide net and take into consideration all the factors and opinions. To prejudge it runs counter to what an EIS is."

Long history

The project was intended to reduce traffic in Lake County and spur economic development, but it has been dogged by financing problems since its inception.

Under previous tollway leaders, a "blue-ribbon" panel of Lake County representatives took months to find consensus in 2012 on an environmentally sensitive road with features to prevent road salt, noise and lighting from disturbing wetlands and preserves along the route.

The design was estimated to cost $2.3 billion to $2.65 billion and faced a $1.9 billion shortfall despite tolls of 20 cents a mile compared to the average 6 cents elsewhere. Likely litigation and "ongoing legislative gridlock in Springfield" would extend the four-year study timetable and increase the cost, Lawlor said.

Higher tolls, a new gas tax and a special taxing district in Lake County were supposed to subsidize the construction, but they have been politically unpopular. Tolling parts of Route 53 near Schaumburg was floated, but the idea was quickly dropped.

A new tollway administration was chosen by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015. Recently, leaders have said all options should be considered for the road, not just the parkway design. Rauner's office did not comment.

Lawlor said he didn't believe there was a chance for the project to move forward "when you layer in the need for the enhanced environmental standards, the schedule and the cost.

"As we evaluate all the work that needs to be done on transportation and all of the effort that has been put into the Route 53/120 project, it is difficult to take a step back and reassess the changing dynamics that we are faced with, including project timeline, increasing gridlock in Springfield and cost escalation," Lawlor said in a lengthy statement. While difficult, it is critical to make the decision before $40 million to $50 million is spent on environmental studies, he said.

Lawlor said he was speaking on his own behalf. However, Lawlor co-chaired the blue ribbon group and his opinion carries considerable weight as tollway officials always have maintained that a consensus among the many communities and interests involved was needed before the project would advance. Opponents, including the villages of Hawthorn Woods and Long Grove, long have contended the road wasn't worth the price and potential environmental harm.

Not a 'waste of money'

Schillerstrom said the tollway board had independently evaluated the value of an environmental impact study before voting on it last fall.

"I wouldn't have voted 'yes' if I thought it was a waste of money," he said.

Such a study would determine if the road is or isn't needed and could also recommend the best type of road to be built, Schillerstrom said.

Lawlor said he expected the situation to evolve in the next few days and "my position is to work with the governor's office to stop the EIS process."

Steve Park, executive director of the Lake County Transportation Alliance, whose membership includes several businesses and communities, said Lawlor's change was "very disheartening and a big surprise."

Park, a former Gurnee village trustee, was the village representative in detailed discussions regarding finances and land use of the proposed road. He said an environmental study should proceed.

"The EIS is all about getting the best and most current information we can get," he said.

"You can't have a good quality of life in Lake County with the transportation congestion we have," Park said. "To think otherwise is to put your head in the sand."

Livable Lake County, a grass-roots group founded by the Sierra Club, supported Lawlor's stance.

"We are never going to get the affordable traffic solutions that Lake County needs as long as the tollway is bent on pursuing this boondoggle that will never be built. We are ready to stop fighting and unite behind solutions that strengthen our communities rather than divide them," the group said in a statement.

Former Waukegan mayor and tollway Director Bill Morris called Lawlor's move a "common-sense decision," adding that to pursue the environmental study would "be a terrible waste of public money and tolls to engage consultants to do study for a road that will not be built."

  A possible Route 53 extension path cuts through a Mundelein subdivision just south of Hawley Street. Steve Lundy/
  An FAP 342 sign along Indian Creek Road in Hawthorn Woods marks the proposed path of the Route 53 north extension. Mick Zawislak/, August 2014
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