How Route 53 extension could gain from Illiana's loss

  • New Illinois tollway board directors Nick Sauer, left, and Craig Johnson, right, will need to make hard decisions on the Route 53 extension.

      New Illinois tollway board directors Nick Sauer, left, and Craig Johnson, right, will need to make hard decisions on the Route 53 extension. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • New Illinois tollway board director Bob Schillerstrom will need to lead the panel through difficult choices when it comes to the proposed Route 53 extension.

      New Illinois tollway board director Bob Schillerstrom will need to lead the panel through difficult choices when it comes to the proposed Route 53 extension. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • New Illinois tollway board directors Bob Schillerstrom, left, Nick Sauer and Craig Johnson listen to an orientation Thursday at the agency's headquarters in Downers Grove.

      New Illinois tollway board directors Bob Schillerstrom, left, Nick Sauer and Craig Johnson listen to an orientation Thursday at the agency's headquarters in Downers Grove. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/8/2015 7:33 AM

Today's scoreboard shows the Illiana Expressway trailing the Route 53 extension by a mile.

Amid a budget feud with Democrats, Gov. Bruce Rauner jettisoned the Illiana last week. The suspension of the road linking I-55 with I-65 in Indiana buoyed foes who consider it a boondoggle that could cost taxpayers $1 billion-plus.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The downside is the state has spent $63 million for engineering and land acquisition in pursuit of the Illiana.

That kind of cash would come in handy for another expensive road project hamstrung by a whopping shortfall of nearly $2 billion -- the extension of Route 53 into Lake County.

Around the time Rauner booted the Illiana, he consolidated a power base at the Illinois tollway, appointing directors who generally support the Route 53 idea.

"As the fortunes of the Illiana fall, the momentum for Route 53 appears to have risen," DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.

Rauner pulled the Illiana because the project costs exceed currently available resources, he said.

For former tollway Director Bill Morris, of Grayslake, who has criticized the project as too pricey, that rationale raised hopes Rauner "would pull the plug on Route 53."

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"When there is not enough money to maintain the existing roads and bridges by IDOT's admission, it makes no sense to build new roads," Morris said.

Schwieterman, for one, considers "Route 53 a different animal than the Illiana. It's not tied to pork-barrel politics in the same way.

"Route 53 is anticipated to spur private investment, while the Illiana was mostly about unionized construction jobs -- there is a big difference," Schwieterman said.

Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor called Route 53 "totally different" from the Illiana, noting it's expected to reduce congestion and spur economic development. He noted how the tollway declined to adopt the Illiana when asked, but is studying Route 53.

As far as the governor's thoughts on Route 53, Rauner's staff "generally seem very interested," Lawlor said. "The devil's in the details. The feedback has not signaled anything that frightens me."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At a Thursday orientation meeting, incoming tollway directors were briefed on the options for Route 53: do nothing, go ahead with an environmental impact study paid for by the agency and "assess the viability of closing the remaining funding gap."

If you wonder if that means a toll increase, it's the question of the year for the board and its new Chairman Bob Schillerstrom.

"I look forward to sitting down with Aaron and leaders in Lake County to see if there's a way to come up with an affordable solution to build that road," Schillerstrom said in May.

In a state with dwindling revenues and government gridlock, the tollway has the ability to raise funds quickly. A toll increase to pay for a $12 billion capital program was introduced and approved within a matter of months in summer 2011.

Yet "the Illiana decision was easy for Rauner," Schwieterman said. "That won't be the case for Route 53, which has a strong constituency."

However, not everyone's convinced the Illiana is dead. Among those who see signs of life is state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican.

"My prediction is that if there's a (state) budget deal, (the Illiana) will get reinstated," he said.

Environmental Law and Policy Center chief Howard Learner wants multiple stakes driven through the Illiana's heart. Rather than a graveside tussle, this involves the federal Department of Transportation and two regional planning councils withdrawing their support.

"The proof will be in the pudding when IDOT moves forward to take the necessary action to bring this boondoggle to a close," Learner said.

One more thing

So Indiana, our governor has canceled the joint expressway project known as the Illiana. Any comment? "It would not be appropriate for Indiana to comment on another state's proposed budget. Indiana remains ready to proceed with the Illiana project when Illinois is ready," Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield said.

What do you think about the Illiana or Route 53? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Your voice

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Gridlock alert

Higgins Road drivers will do the shift this week as traffic switches to the westbound lanes over I-90. That means construction starts on the eastbound side and I-90 regulars can expect overnight closures to remove the bridge deck and beams. Drive safely.

Upcoming

Calling all wonks: There's still time to register for the Lipinski Transportation Symposium on Policy and Strategy June 22 at Northwestern University in Evanston. Speakers include IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and CTA chief Dorval Carter. For info, go to www.transportation.northwestern.edu/news_events/2015/lipinski/index.html.

Potty words

If supersized Slurpees and I-90 traffic are a lethal combination, relief is in sight. The Illinois tollway announced bathroom upgrades are coming to the 7-Elevens at the Des Plaines Oasis. Car wash stalls will be removed, making space for bigger restrooms, a picnic area and extra parking. Work should wrap up by fall. The glass oasis structure was razed last year, but the convenience store and gas stations remain.

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