Editorial: Where's the political will to justify continued spending on Rt. 53 extension?

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted12/21/2016 5:33 PM
  • The Illinois Tollway board has budgeted $10 million toward an environmental impact study of a proposal to extend Route 53 through Lake County.

    The Illinois Tollway board has budgeted $10 million toward an environmental impact study of a proposal to extend Route 53 through Lake County. GILBERT R. BOUCHER II/Daily Herald file photo

When a proposal was developed in October 2014 that seemed to address 50 years -- yes, half a century -- of debate over extending Route 53 through Lake County, we greeted it with cautious optimism.

Now, with the Illinois Tollway offering up $10 million toward an estimated eventual $50 million just to study the project's environmental impact, we're beset with questions, chief among them, where is the will to see this project through?

Despite its promising beginnings, the Route 53 extension has been the focus of two years of protests. Its estimated cost has grown to well over $2 billion. Yet, the project is still $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion short, even with funding ideas that include state and federal resources, tolls diverted from other portions of the tollway and a proposed local toll that would be almost three and a half times the 6 cents-per-mile drivers pay elsewhere,

Along the way, key supporters -- most notably Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor -- have fallen away, and even the Illinois Department of Transportation, an original backer of the extension, has indicated it won't take the project to the governor for his signoff without indications of substantial support within the county.

We understand IDOT's reluctance. While the proposal obviously has its supporters, including many Lake County mayors who recognize the commercial value of a new corridor pulling traffic away from packed existing roadways, there's been no response to match either the research or the passion of the opposition.

State officials are said to be planning after the first of the year to work closely with Lake County residents and businesses to get a better handle on whether there's sufficient support to justify the massive political, environmental and structural effort that would be required just to determine whether to start putting shovels into the dirt.

One may well ask why such scouting of public interest is still necessary two years into this project. Perhaps there's some merit in getting an environmental study under way to save time if the project ever is approved. But what if it's not? Is $10 million a mere pittance to be put at risk? What if that becomes the full $50 million and it takes another 10 years to get this road underway?

Amid such questions, it's easy to understand former state Sen. Bill Morris's question whether there's "a secret plan" somewhere to magically produce money where none seems visible anywhere at the moment.

The traffic congestion in Lake County has been crying out for a solution for five decades and has only worsened throughout that period. A solution is needed, and at the outset, there was much to recommend this compromise, imperfect though it may be.

But the proposal has reached a key stage. If the tollway has seen some undercurrent of support to justify further expense on the project, it should share it with everyone else. Indeed, if there's sufficient political will in the county to respond to the substantial and legitimate concerns opponents have raised, it too needs to emerge and make itself known.

Otherwise, one can only wonder what kind of stewardship of public funds permits continued expense on the project at this time.

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