Editorial: Troubling signs with Route 53's Lake County extension at a crossroads

Pipe dream or delayed reality? That's the question the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority needs to answer this week about the long-debated Route 53 highway extension into Lake County.

The board meets Thursday amid doubts the project will ever get off the ground now that one of its chief backers has rescinded that support.

"The financial and political realities have become insurmountable," said Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor. "I don't make this decision lightly."

But a decision he has made and now members of the tollway board must make theirs. Chairman Bob Schillerstrom, in the wake of Lawlor's announcement, said the authority should still go forward with a feasibility study that could cost up to $50 million.

We have an issue with that. We've always maintained that the Route 53 extension needed strong local support before moving forward. Yes, there has been local opposition, but four years ago a plan was endorsed by an advisory group that included Lake County politicians.

Without it, the tollway board - answerable only to the governor - is facing spending more money without local backing. It's difficult to believe that Gov. Bruce Rauner would want to move forward with an expensive road project without it, given the tenuous nature of the state's finances and the political fallout that could occur.

That's what some think happened to Lawlor's support. The Lake County Board chairman is facing re-election this fall and the proposal to build an environmentally friendly road different from any other toll road in the state was going to be expensive to pull off.

"I think it's likely he stuck his finger in the wind and felt there had been a change and there was no longer enough support to proceed," former Illinois Chamber of Commerce leader Doug Whitley told our transportation writer Marni Pyke.

What needs to happen now is an open discussion at the tollway board as to where things stand and why it would be beneficial to spend $50 million on a project that may never get done.

Two years ago, we were encouraged that a solution to the congestion Lake County experiences could be worked out. That encouragement was based on a transparency that was permeating the discussions about the Route 53 extension and that included environmentalists and others not just looking for a new highway. With a solution now in doubt, it's even more important that these discussions and resulting decisions be done out in the open.

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