Is the tollway getting cold feet on Route 53 extension?
For months, the Route 53 extension has languished on the back burner at the Illinois tollway.
But separate events last week -- a survey showing support for extending the road north and a public protest against it -- have thrust the controversial project back into the spotlight.
In December 2015, tollway board directors voted to spend up to $50 million for a comprehensive study on extending Route 53 into Lake County. Despite Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor's dropping support for the project in May, tollway leaders reaffirmed their commitment, indicating they'd hire consultants by last summer, but nothing's happened.
That begs the question: Is the tollway all-in or getting cold feet?
Proposals from consulting firms are still under review, a spokesman said.
If officials needed ammunition to pull the trigger, they got it with the release of a report last week from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a think tank whose board members include labor unions, the construction industry, lobbyists and utility companies.
The institute polled 400 voters in Lake County in February and found 66 percent favored the project, 18 percent opposed it and 16 percent didn't know or refused to comment.
"The public is overwhelmingly supportive of the project," institute policy manager Frank Manzo said.
That's not what members of Livable Lake County think. Volunteers mailed off 3,000 petitions to Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday asking him to kill the plan.
"Gov. Rauner, please hear us. Let us choose a better future," Livable Lake County's Evan Craig said.
Opponents say the new road would pollute the air and nearby preserves. Others aren't happy with proposed toll rates of 20 cents a mile compared to the 6-cent average elsewhere and a $2 billion-plus shortfall to be potentially subsidized by a gas tax or higher tolls in Lake County.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group included the extension in a list of nine of the most "wasteful" highway boondoggles in the nation. Supporters are convinced the extension would cure traffic congestion, create jobs, spur economic development and reduce travel times.
When pollsters informed people of the gas tax and higher tolls, 64 percent still supported the plan and 29 percent opposed it, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute reported.
Why is there so much noise about Route 53 now?
For one, the complicated, politically volatile reconstruction and widening of the Tri-State Tollway is starting to suck up oxygen at the agency.
The Illinois Economic Policy Institute feared the 53 project "was slowly becoming another Illiana," said Manzo, referring to the shelved Illinois/Indiana expressway.
Former state Sen. and tollway Director Bill Morris of Grayslake thinks the 2018 governor's race is a factor given that Rauner appoints the tollway board.
"There is a push being made by special interest groups, developers, road speculators and unions to pressure the governor to support the study and move forward on Route 53 as a condition of support for his upcoming election. It's all about next year," Morris said.
The governor doesn't interfere with votes, tollway Director Joseph Gomez said. The Northfield banker thinks the road extension makes sense on its merits and that benefits outweigh any negatives. Meanwhile, concerns about higher tolls are being readdressed, Gomez said.
Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said, "We have a variety of contractual issues to consider and hope to address it (Route 53) in the future."
Significantly, Lake County's George Ranney, who headed up a blue-ribbon committee that reached consensus on a four-lane, tolled parkway with a 45 mph limit in 2012, recently withdrew support for the project.
Ranney stated he thought state and tollway officials were not committing to those conditions, breaking with an "understanding we worked so hard to achieve."
"People are struggling with it," IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn said Friday.
There still is interest in the project, but overall "there are concerns about where the support is," he said. "To move this project forward in any way we have to be seeing support from the local officials and local communities. It doesn't make sense to build something that doesn't have that support."
Got an opinion on Route 53? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One more thing
Petra ... I mean Metra ... will expand a program allowing small dogs and cats on trains to weekdays. The railroad started allowing pets in carriers on weekends last year. A lack of yipping, howling and complaints led to the changes that will begin on May 1 for a six-month trial.
Pets will be permitted before 6:30 a.m. and after 9:30 a.m. on weekday trains heading downtown and on outbound trains before 3 p.m. and after 7 p.m.
In Lombard, IDOT is closing lanes on Butterfield Road under Highland Avenue nightly starting at 6 p.m. for bridge painting. Work wraps up this summer.
And in Des Plaines, resurfacing means temporary lane closures on Wolf Road between Rand and Golf roads now until later this spring.
Tri-State forums coming
Learn about the Illinois tollway's plan to widen the Central Tri-State from Rosemont to the South suburbs at three open houses this week. The forums are: 6 to 8 p.m. today at the Hinsdale oasis; 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Lipinski Community Center, 7256 Skyline Drive, Justice; and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the O'Hare oasis.