Controversial Route 53 extension a step closer to reality

  • Members of the tollway's customer service committee recommended moving ahead with the Route 53 extension environmental impact report at their Wednesday meeting.

      Members of the tollway's customer service committee recommended moving ahead with the Route 53 extension environmental impact report at their Wednesday meeting. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/9/2015 7:03 PM

Illinois tollway directors pulled the trigger today on a pricey study of extending Route 53 into Lake County amid objections from residents. A final vote will come next week.

The tollway's proposed budget has $5.8 million for the plan next year, but the total cost of the environmental impact report is estimated at $40 million to $50 million.

 

The tollway has been mulling over whether to adopt the controversial project, which would push Route 53 north to Route 120, since 2011.

"One hour and 30 minutes later, I'm here," Lake County Administrator Barry Burton said, referring to the congestion and traffic en route to tollway headquarters in Downers Grove. "This problem's not going away."

But Long Grove Trustee Michael Sarlitto advised planners to not "go where you're not wanted. The underlying assumption of consensus couldn't be further than the truth."

Members of the tollway's customer service committee recommended moving ahead with the study at their Wednesday meeting.

"I've been involved in a lot of (environmental impact studies)," tollway Director and Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson said. "If you're for or against (a project), an EIS is good because it gives you answers. If you're against a project, an EIS may be your ally."

"There's a lot of emotions out there," tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said. "The next step is to analyze the situation."

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Tollway Executive Director Greg Bedalov refused to comment on the issue to reporters after Wednesday's meeting. A spokesman said the executive director was not available although Bedalov was in the board room.

The Route 53 plan has divided many in Lake County.

Supporters think the extension would reduce congestion, air pollution and commuting time in Lake County plus bring jobs and development to the region.

Opponents say the road would destroy valuable prairie and wetlands and endanger plants and wildlife. Others predict the 45 mph parkway design with tolls of about 20 cents a mile is impractical and won't be worth the money.

The road would include environmental features aimed at not harming wetlands and prairie along the route. The tollway would also improve Route 120 west to Route 12 and east to I-294 if it undertakes the project.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The biggest hurdle is how to close a funding gap estimated at $2 billion. Funding ideas for Lake County include a gas tax, increasing tolls, and a special taxing district known as a tax increment financing district, a mechanism which isn't popular with some residents. In a TIF district, the property tax revenues that go to local governments are frozen at a certain level, which is set on a base assessed property value. Any taxes generated above that level go back into redevelopment.

Long Grove Trustee Stan Borys called the project and funding suggestions "a horror story.

"Twenty cents a mile is three times the average rate," Borys said.

He added that a proposed TIF could hurt villages, libraries and school and park districts by absorbing the yearly increases in tax revenues.

"If the tollway grabs that, it could cause a ripple effect," he said.

But Steve Park, a Gurnee trustee and executive director of the Lake County Transportation Alliance countered that "we are concerned about getting people a higher quality of life by reducing traffic congestion."

Bedalov was hired to replace outgoing Executive Director Kristi Lafleur in June. While Lafleur was always available after tollway meetings to take questions, Bedalov has generally been inaccessible to the media.

Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Chairwoman and former state Sen. Susan Garrett called the shift in policy "highly unusual."

"The precedent has been established for all high-level tollway officials to be available to the press -- to answer questions and establish public trust," Garrett said. "The taxpayers and the tollway users expect and deserve that."

Tollway officials said its communications staff "works everyday to keep the general public and news outlets up to date with the latest information. That includes working with reporters before and after every board meeting to ensure they have accurate responses to their questions."

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