Two state lawmakers withdraw support for Route 53 extension
Opposition to the proposed Route 53 extension into Lake County stiffened Wednesday as two key backers withdrew their support in light of what they maintain is a departure from the guiding principles that rekindled the project.
But proponents say project support remains strong, and they contend the letter from state Sen. Terry Link and state Rep. Rita Mayfield to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority was strategically timed as the tollway board considers advancing the project for more detailed study. A group of opponents is expected to attend the tollway meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday at its headquarters, 2700 Ogden Ave., Downers Grove.
Link and Mayfield were members of the Blue Ribbon Advisory Council that studied the proposed extension and in 2012 recommended approval of a boulevard-style tollway with extensive environmental safeguards. Since then, the support of various environmental organizations has evaporated because an associated land use plan for the roadway corridor is not enforceable, they contended.
"We believed that it was important to bring stakeholders including local government, builders, environmental organizations and Lake County Citizens at Large to the table to study whether or not this project could be realized and the environmental damages minimized or mitigated," the letter states.
The pair also wrote that a separate recommendation to help pay for the estimated $2.35 billion to $2.65 billion project delays funding for environmental protections until after the road is built and also lacks tollway support if certain revenues are not realized.
"We are herby withdrawing our support until such time as this project is developed in complete accord with all of the BRAC recommendations, and the Land Use Plan is enforceable and includes an implementation plan," the letter states.
Link, a Waukegan Democrat, said Wednesday he still backs the idea, but not if the original plan for a divided highway with environmental protections changes. He said there has been "a lot of discussion" about the plan changing.
"If you're going to make it a six-lane highway with 70 mph (speed limits) without any concern for the wetlands, then I'm off the reservation," he said.
Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor, who co-chairs the Blue Ribbon Advisory Council, described the letter as "disappointing" and said it seems like a "last-minute play to stall or stop additional studies."
He said the blue-ribbon recommendations will be the foundation for an environmental-impact statement, which would be the next step in advancing the project. Lawlor and others contend that study will provide details and answer questions raised by opponents, including Hawthorn Woods.
"It's an opportunity for us to study these environmental issues and see what can be done," he said. "The blue-ribbon recommendations are critical. They're not going to build the road at any cost or impact."
Lawlor noted 40 mayors representing 80 percent of Lake County's population have signed a letter of support. Other letters of support are listed at http://ilroute53.org/support/.
Jack Darin, director of Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, said in a statement the letter was the "latest and strongest signal that any perceived consensus for this expensive, unnecessary project has eroded."
He added there was growing doubt whether the road could be built in a way to protect Lake County's quality of life and that "empty promises" of environmental protections would be kept.
•Daily Herald staff writer Bob Susnjara contributed to this report.