Tollway OKs $25 million, 4- to 5-year study of Route 53 extension

Illinois tollway directors unanimously voted to study extending Route 53 north Thursday, approving a $25 million consulting contract amid furious lobbying for and against the project.

Tollway leaders said the consultants will start from scratch and in four to five years make recommendations for a road to be paid for with tolls.

It's a departure from the four-lane parkway plan the previous tollway administration had forwarded that was envisioned after months of discussions with Lake County leaders and stakeholders in a blue-ribbon committee.

The consultants will study route options for building a road up to Route 120 near Grayslake as well as improvements to Route 120. They won't be tied to previous plans, but they should consider the parkway idea as well, Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said.

"What we'll have is an initial analysis to determine if a road should be built," he said. "Once that decision is made, many things will be considered - and certainly the (blue ribbon committee) and its report would be one of the things that would be given substantial consideration to."

Opponents of the extension call it a boondoggle and say the focus should be on fixing local arterial roads such as Route 120 if the tollway wants to improve congestion.

Other projects to fix traffic in Lake County "are being held hostage by this single 12-mile stretch of road that's not wanted," Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joseph Mancini said.

Former state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake, a former tollway director, predicted a systemwide toll increase would result if the board went ahead with the road.

"Parole Lake County now and drop this study. We can solve our Route 120/83 congestion problem for about 5 percent of the cost of Route 53," Morris said.

Schillerstrom said "we are very opposed to toll increases and are not considering one at this point."

Supporters say the road will create jobs and improve traffic flow in Lake County and north Cook County, where Route 53 peters out.

"With congestion and travel time improvements, the new extension will unlock economic development," said Dave Bender, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois, which represents consulting engineering companies.

A representative of a Chicago-based road construction contractor also is in favor, saying going ahead will create jobs. "It's time to embrace the positive things about moving forward with the environmental impact study," FH Paschen vice president Mark Barkowski said.

Tollway Director Joseph Gomez of Northfield said the board was "very sensitive" to people worried of losing their homes. He recounted growing up on Chicago's near west side: "When they built the Ryan and the Kennedy Expressways, they took my home, they took my father's business."

Director and Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson said towns opposing the project will be involved in the process and should know "it's your chance to be part of the discussion."

Director Neli Vasquez Rowland of Bartlett said the board was "agnostic" on whether to actually build a road. "I feel there is definitely a need for a study - it doesn't mean (the project) is going to happen."

The contract is with engineering firms California-based CH2M Hill Inc. and Knight E/A Inc. in Chicago. The tollway has authorized up to $50 million for an environmental impact study.

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