Pyke: How gap in Rt. 53 funding may affect drivers
The sleeper issue of 2015 will be extending Route 53 north to Route 120, and here's why.
So far, Lake County leaders have trimmed project costs plus floated a 20-cent per mile toll rate along with potentially explosive strategies, such as a 4-cent-per-gallon gas tax and new tolls on the north Tri-State to pay for the local share. Despite all this, up to $2 billion of the road is unfunded.
It's unlikely the Illinois tollway board will make any go-viral decisions in February when a Lake County advisory group delivers a report on paying for the $2.65 billion project.
But eventually, the following scenarios could occur that affect how you drive in the suburbs and what it costs you.
• If tollway directors reject the project, it's a big letdown for Lake County officials who labored mightily and took political risks to come up with a workable plan. (Not to mention thousands of your toll revenues spent on consultants.)
• If directors approve the road, where does the $2 billion or so come from? If you said "toll increase," that's a definite possibility since the agency's current building program doesn't include Route 53.
• Wild cards that could add to the drama: intervention from Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, who appoints tollway board directors, and the General Assembly, which would have to change Illinois law for a gas tax to take effect.
So, where does the tollway board stand?
Right now, "we don't have a firm enough understanding of the finances or the land use," Chairman Paula Wolff said. "It's very premature to analyze what the outcome will be." However, Wolff is heartened by the involvement of Lake County officials. "After years of no action, everyone is engaged," she said.
Tollway Director Mark Peterson of Libertyville said, "I remain really committed to see it move forward. There's still a way to go ... but we've come a long way."
But, "I don't anticipate an abrupt ending to this," Peterson said. "I anticipate the tollway board will work hard to find a consensus and work to find a solution."
Doug Whitley, who co-chairs the tollway's Route 53 advisory group, said "at this point, I don't see the plug being pulled. I'd be happy if at the end of 2015 the tollway is in a position to take this on as their next major project.
"If it's teed up properly it will be hard to walk away," said Whitley, former Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO.
Whitley, however, doesn't anticipate the road moving forward until other priorities -- widening I-90 and extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway plus building a western bypass -- are far advanced. Those projects will last through 2016 and 2025, respectively.
As for paying the balance? "In my estimation, the tollway will have to come up with a way to add revenue through some type of systemwide toll increase to help complete the Route 53 project," Whitley said.
Not everyone in Lake County is on board, however.
Bill Morris, a former tollway director and state senator from Grayslake, says the tollway's desire for Lake County to contribute a significant chunk of the financing is "outrageous."
"Lake County deserves to be part of Illinois," Morris said. He thinks the county was snubbed when the agency approved a $12 billion road program in 2011 that included the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, Jane Addams widening and I-57/Tri-State interchange -- but not Route 53.
"I can't fathom how they're punishing Lake County that way. It's been 55 years since this road was proposed and it's been considered one of the highest priorities by various planning agencies ... and they forgot to include it," Morris said.
He doesn't fault Lake County leaders, who Morris thinks are doing their best in an impossible situation. But a gas tax and added tolls to the north Tri-State are discriminatory when compared to what DuPage County drivers will pay for building the Elgin-O'Hare, he said.
As for the 20-cent-per-mile toll, "the reality is lots of people are earning less than $54,000 per family per year (in Lake County) and they're struggling to make ends meet," Morris said.
Peterson holds a different opinion.
"Will people be willing to pay for a road that will hopefully cut their commute times and reduce backups ... and from an environmental standard reduce emissions? If it's done the right way, people will embrace it."
Brian Buchanan of Mount Prospect thinks "Metra's (recent) fare increases are justified. The cost of a monthly is still significantly below what driving and parking would cost. Being as I am subsidizing Metra riders through taxes even though I do not currently ride, I personally wish they would raise the fares further."
Got an opinion on Route 53? A Lake County gas tax? Metra? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
Weigh in on Cook County's long-term transportation plan from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, at the Northbrook village hall, 1225 Cedar Lane; and Thursday, at DePaul University's Chaddick Institute, 16th Floor, 14 E. Jackson, Chicago.