Pyke: Lawlor's Rt. 53 switch leaves questions

  • Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor explains why he jumped off the Route 53 bandwagon last week. The Illinois tollway still plans a study of the extension north.

      Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor explains why he jumped off the Route 53 bandwagon last week. The Illinois tollway still plans a study of the extension north. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/23/2016 10:31 AM

May 18, 2012. Months of endless PowerPoints, bad coffee, uncomfortable chairs and sturm und drang over extending Route 53 into Lake County culminated in a miraculous Kumbaya moment.

Twenty out of 22 members of an Illinois tollway advisory group that included environmentalists, engineers, builders and Lake County politicians voted for a consensus plan to build an extension north.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It wasn't just any toll road, however. The proposed Route 53 extension would not only fix traffic congestion choking Lake County, it would be an environmentally friendly, four-lane, 45 mph parkway -- nothing like the massive, high-speed toll roads everywhere else in Illinois.

May 16, 2016. Boom goes the dynamite. Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor pivoted from his previous pro-extension stance, saying the vision of an environmentally friendly Route 53 extension isn't financially or politically sustainable.

What happened? And how does the tollway go it alone without a local cheerleader or money for the $2.65 billion road given that officials have sworn off a toll hike?

"I don't make this decision lightly and have based my thought process on the financial and political dynamics that have changed over the past several months," Lawlor said in a May 16 statement.

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Although surprised by Lawlor's bombshell, tollway Chairman Bob Schillerstrom is standing by an earlier decision to hire consultants to conduct a feasibility study costing up to $50 million.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's office was coy when asked to comment, as was the Illinois Department of Transportation, which owns much of the land needed for the expansion. The IDOT secretary is an ex officio member of the tollway board.

Plans for extending Route 53 date back to the 1960s.

One theory to explain last week's about-face is that the parkway plan was too good to be true. Features such as recessed lanes to reduce noise, berms to clean polluted water and wildlife crossing areas added to the desirability and a $1.9 billion shortfall. Proposed low speeds of 45 mph made the project greener, but would turn off drivers craving 70 mph, as would hefty tolls of 20 cents a mile compared to the 6 cents a mile average, critics said.

As a sign of future trouble, in May 2014, tollway directors took Lake County officials to the woodshed, pointing out that a road so unlike the Tri-State or I-88 was expensive and asked the region to pony up. Lawlor came back that November offering about $600 million to $1 billion that could be achieved through a county gas tax and higher tolls in Lake.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At the same time, Rauner swept into office and appointed a different slate of tollway leaders. The new group backed the project but said they wanted to look at all options -- including but not limited to a 45 mph parkway.

With a one-two-three punch of higher tolls or taxes and the idyllic parkway plan in flux, the already fragile Lake County consensus unraveled. It left a feisty churn of environmental groups, anti-tax folks, irate developers and drivers sick of two-hour commutes.

Lawlor, who will face an election challenge this fall, said he'd lost faith the road would be built in conformance with the 2012 plan and asked the tollway to drop the study.

"I think it's likely he stuck his finger in the wind and felt there had been a change and there was no longer enough support to proceed," said former Illinois Chamber of Commerce head Doug Whitley, a central figure in the Route 53 discussions. "A lot of political leaders don't want get too far out ahead of the troops."

That leaves the tollway holding the hot potato.

"I think we should let the (environmental impact) study go forward and make a decision based on the facts," said tollway Director Joseph Gomez, who lives in Northfield.

But finding funds to pay for the work without a systemwide toll hike could take another miracle. Both Schillerstrom and tollway Executive Director Greg Bedalov told me during an April interview, there are no plans for any toll increases in the future.

At a Wednesday committee meeting, not a word was said about the brouhaha. The full tollway board meets Thursday. Could there be some enlightenment? Stay tuned.

Your voice

Metra is testing out new seats in 30 railcars and Terry Tallian of Wood Dale has a review. Tallian gave the interior of the car a thumbs-up, calling it "bright and cheery," and found the seats relatively soft. But, "I didn't see any of the arm rests or cup holders in use. I tried sitting back to use the head rest on the seats and could not do so comfortably," Tallian wrote.

Got an opinion about Metra seats, Route 53 or other transportation issues? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Gridlock alert

The tollway starts repairs of the Randall Road ramps on I-90 this week. Expect lane shifts and some closures, although ramps remain open.

Up, up and away

AAA predicts more than 38 million Americans will take a trip over Memorial Day, the most since 2005. That means you should allow two to three hours for security lines at O'Hare and Midway International Airports, given shortages in TSA staffing. AAA predicts 95,000 Illinoisans will be flying somewhere, a nearly 1 percent spike from 2015.

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