Hawthorn Woods mayor calls Route 53 extension group 'coercive'

You know finding consensus on extending Route 53 will be a hard slog when friction emerges over an agreement to agree.

The Illinois tollway this spring created a Stakeholders Participation Group of nearly 150 entities to advise on expanding Route 53 north into Lake County, a project that's roiled residents for decades.

Although Hawthorn Woods opposes the extension, Mayor Joseph Mancino was ready to engage - until asked to sign an operating agreement requiring participants to "reach a collective understanding." Now he's bristling at tactics he thinks herd members into unanimity and stifle dissent.

That language "is inherently coercive," said Mancino, whose community could be bisected by the road. The wording means stakeholders who sign must support the plan even if they hate it, while those who refuse forfeit a seat at the table, he said.

On the contrary, tollway officials explained. Everyone is welcome even if they don't sign the agreement and their views are considered on an "equal status" basis, officials said.

The "agreement was intended to encourage an open and healthy discussion among community members," tollway Executive Director Liz Gorman wrote Mancino.

To recap, supporters of extending Route 53 to Route 120 think it will reduce traffic jams, get people around faster and spur economic growth. Opponents call it a boondoggle that will pollute preserves and waterways, and devastate established neighborhoods.

Hawthorn Woods was joined in its objections to the agreement by The Environmental Law and Policy Center, Active Transportation Alliance, Liberty Prairie Foundation, Lake County Audubon Society, Metropolitan Planning Council, Midwest Sustainability Group, Openlands and Sierra Club/Illinois Chapter.

In a letter to the tollway, the organizations said the agreement "discourages, or even prohibits, dissenting minority views in several places" with phrases such as "agree to act as a team" and "reach a collective understanding."

Other entities such as Buffalo Grove, where officials hope the extension will fix local traffic jams, had no problems with the process. "We did not have objections, we support the project," Trustee Jeffrey Berman said.

"I didn't take it as tying my hands whatsoever," former Hainesville Mayor Linda Soto said.

"The tollway is just starting ... at the end of day the process will tell us what the options are," added Soto, now CEO of the Lake County Transportation Alliance, whose members include construction industry representatives.

Mancino is dubious.

"The entire process is set up for one thing and one thing only, and that's to build that toll road," he said.

Tollway directors in 2017 hired consultants to study the project for $25 million. It was rebranded as the Tri-County Access Project with a new, regionwide focus on fixing traffic congestion. The stakeholder group numbers about 145 members from Kenosha County in Wisconsin to Bensenville.

Tollway leaders have repeated that everything is on the table - even no construction.

Yet, the Tri-County Access Project website claims: "Doing nothing is no longer an option," and "the question is no longer 'if,' but 'how.'"

Meetings are "a lecture series where no one is allowed to speak," Mancino said. Instead of informal discussion, participants can only ask questions through an app that all stakeholders vote up or down, he said.

"Let's remember this is being bankrolled by $25 million in public funds. In exchange, we deserve unencumbered access to the planning process without being asked to sign out our rights," Mancino said.

Tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said stakeholders from three counties used "technology at meetings to help facilitate discussion, with staff readily available to help answer questions. All questions submitted by SPG members were answered and all questions and responses were posted online."

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"Can you look into" deteriorating pavement at the Arlington Park Metra station parking lot? Kevin Reiter tweeted to @dhintransit. Yes we can. "The west half will be repaved this weekend, and the east half on July 21 and 22," Metra reported.

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Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joseph Mancino
The expressway ends, but the debate over extending Route 53 north into Lake County continues. Daily Herald File Photo
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