Editorial: $25 million questions remain as tollway set to again study Route 53 extension

Where's the Lake County buy-in? And where does this all end?

These are our questions as the Illinois tollway board votes today whether to spend $25 million to study building a northern Route 53 extension.

The tollway is required to pose an open-ended question to the consultants it would hire, seeking recommendations on the type of tollway and its route as well as an assessment of the need for the roadway and its environmental costs, Chairman Bob Schillerstrom says.

That's essentially starting anew after a decade in which many Lake County leaders, meeting as the Blue Ribbon Advisory Council, had hashed out a plan for an environmentally sensitive 45 mph parkway version of Route 53, then saw their fragile coalition implode over a $2 billion or more funding shortfall that could have meant higher gas taxes or higher tolls for drivers in Lake County.

Never mind about that funding gap, says Schillerstrom, who spoke to the Daily Herald Editorial Board on Wednesday. Though how to pay for the road wouldn't be part of the environmental study that's up for a vote today, Schillerstrom says he envisions the cost would come from tolls, possibly from a new building campaign that would start after the current building program, funded by toll increases, ends in 2025.

Schillerstrom says the consultants would look at the Blue Ribbon group's work, but what he describes is still a significant shift on a road proposal that's been controversial ever since it hit the books in 1962. And it's one that requires input from Lake County, before a road-building proposal that has lacked local consensus for 55 years turns into a $25 million-more-expensive project that still lacks consensus after 65 years.

We'd prefer to have greater confidence that the tollway board, which includes no Lake County residents, had done all it could to involve Lake County leaders in its current vision. Assuming the board members approve the expenditure, which they seem determined to do, we urge them to make good on their promises of involvement and transparency as the project proceeds.

Moreover, we - as all involved parties should - expect them to adhere to their description that the purpose of the study is to determine whether a Route 53 extension is needed and if so, in what form. They shouldn't be preordaining the outcome, and they should be prepared to stand by director Elk Grove Village mayor Craig Johnson's vow that if the outcome is "bad, (the project) won't go."

Residents of central Lake County and long suffering commuters throughout the region deserve to finally have the Route 53 question resolved, one way or the other.

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