With money to plan greenway, what’s next for defunct Route 53 extension — and should IDOT get paid?

A short paragraph on page 1,209 of the state budget marks a major milestone in the future of Route 53 in Lake County.

The budget, which goes into effect July 1, allots $1 million to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for “developing a land-use master plan for Route 53 expansion land.”

What does that mean? For environmental advocates and adjacent suburbs, it’s about creating a scenic greenway with bike and walking trails that protects natural areas.

For the Illinois Department of Transportation, which spent years acquiring 1,100 acres to extend Route 53 north from Lake-Cook Road, it means intense discussions with its sister agency.

And for some lawmakers, it triggers the question: Why is $54 million in taxpayer money meant for a road going to open space?

  Green space and wetlands are plentiful along Route 22 near the path of the once-planned Route 53 extension near Long Grove. Paul Valade/

IDOT began buying land for the expansion in the 1970s to solve traffic congestion. But sky-high costs and fears it would destroy natural areas eroded support, and the Illinois tollway, the project’s last sponsor, pulled the plug in 2019.

Come 2022, a state advisory panel recommended transferring the property to IDNR to create a 12-mile green corridor between Long Grove and Grayslake.

Looking ahead, the plan will engage local stakeholders, develop a consensus vision for the corridor and approach how to fund it, explained Democratic state Rep. Dan Didech of Buffalo Grove.

“For decades, residents in the area most affected by the extension made it clear, it was something they didn’t want,” Didech said.

“It’s a very unique stretch of land that can be used in a way that’s really going to benefit the lives of a lot of people in Lake County.”

Members of the Green Corridor Coalition agree.

“It will be a modern, urban wildlife corridor and greenway, and nature trail to connect citizens to nature,” Midwest Sustainability Group Executive Director Barbara Klipp said.

The Greenway would connect with the Millennium and Des Plaines River trails, offering miles of alternative transportation, Klipp noted.

“It’s very much more than a trail,” Openlands Policy Director Chris Kessler said. “It weaves through all these different communities each with their own identities.”

But Lake County Transportation Alliance officials commented that “the future greenway doesn’t change the fact that residents and businesses need transportation solutions that improve public safety and provide congestion relief while protecting our environment.”

Those include mass transit, intersection improvements and connectivity, they noted.

“Out of an 1,100-acre parcel, a reasonable fraction should be reserved to make these improvements possible and deliver on the taxpayer’s portion paid to IDOT in good faith over many years and compensate for the surrender of the land.”

Didech, however, pointed to other fixes for gridlock in Lake County, such as a grade separation project at Routes 60 and 83.

  Barbara Klipp, left, and Chris Kessler, part of the Green Corridor Coalition, explore a natural area that was in the path of the former Route 53 extension plan in Long Grove. Kessler is the director of policy of Openlands which works to protect the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois. Paul Valade/

Meanwhile, if the land is transferred, “there should be some remuneration to IDOT,” Republican state Sen. Don DeWitte of St. Charles said.

DeWitte, a transportation committee member, noted there’s still a possibility the Chicago Bears might turn the former Arlington Park into a stadium and the Route 53 land could be needed.

“To willy-nilly turn this right of way over to parkland, I think, would be a shortsighted decision,” he said.

However, Republican state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods contends after raising the gas tax, IDOT “has more money than they can push out the door. I don’t know why it’s necessary for one agency to turn around and pay another one.”

“Absent some sort of dramatic need … I would say the people in the district I represent, largely favor not turning it into a road.”

  Chris Kessler, left, and Barbara Klipp, part of the Green Corridor Coalition, explore a natural area that was in the path of the former Route 53 extension plan in Long Grove. Paul Valade/

While Lake County, Long Grove and Grayslake leaders support the green corridor, Buffalo Grove has a nuanced view.

Asked what the greenway would mean for the town, Mayor Eric Smith said “that would depend on the project’s connectivity to Buffalo Grove and our residents.

“If they have to drive to it, then that’s probably not going to happen so it wouldn’t mean much.”

Regarding traffic congestion, “all the studies still indicate that north-south access is absolutely necessary and this project obviously does not address that,” Smith added.

Over in Arlington Heights, Mayor Tom Hayes said the village is not aware of any recent complaints about traffic at Lake-Cook and Route 53 and “residents have certainly not been clamoring for an extension.”

“My guess is that they would prefer the open space and trails,” he added.

Asked to weigh in, IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said the agency “looks forward to continuing the work with IDNR and our local partners to determine next steps regarding any transfer of land.”

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