Pyke: 5 takeaways from the tollway's momentous Route 53 decision

  • The debate over whether to extend Route 53 north of Lake-Cook Road rages on after the Illinois tollway approved a $25 million study of the project.

    The debate over whether to extend Route 53 north of Lake-Cook Road rages on after the Illinois tollway approved a $25 million study of the project. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Chicago's airports were expecting a 2 percent increase in passengers this holiday weekend compared to 2016.

    Chicago's airports were expecting a 2 percent increase in passengers this holiday weekend compared to 2016.

  • Proposed Route 53 extension

    Graphic: Proposed Route 53 extension (click image to open)

 
Updated 5/30/2017 4:05 PM

After years of angst over whether to extend Route 53 north into Lake County, the Illinois tollway moved with dizzying speed last week approving a $25 million study of the project.

But while the board's vote took seconds, there were hours of fraught testimony from environmentalists fearful of pollution, residents worried about losing their homes, commuters sick of sitting in traffic and construction industry representatives lobbying for jobs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Here are five take-aways from a momentous week:

1. Promising to pay for the extension could be a game-changer.

Unlike his predecessors, Chairman Bob Schillerstrom pledged that if Route 53 is extended, the tollway will pay for the whole shebang. That means no unpopular 4-cent gas tax or special taxing districts in Lake County floated to subsidize the pricey parkway.

"We're not contemplating in any way raising tolls," Schillerstrom said. "We don't rely on any local taxes, any state taxes or any federal taxes. We are a 100 percent user fee entity."

So would no gas tax sweeten the deal for opponents?

"I don't believe so," Lake County Board member Diane Hewitt said. For her constituents, the extension "is so far removed they'll never use it."

However, board member Paul Frank thinks "obviously a gas tax might alleviate concerns of some of the folks who are against it."

2. The bottom line is cost.

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The latest toll road under construction is Route 390, an extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway. Tolls on it are 20 cents a mile compared to the 6-cent average elsewhere, reflecting the project's costs.

Asked if the tollway would charge 20 cents a mile on a new Route 53, Schillerstrom said, "there's no way I can speculate on that at this point. The first issue is -- is the road going to be built."

And if the answer is "yes," you can be sure the next question will be -- how do you pay for it?

3. Being inclusive could be elusive.

The tollway said it's "committed to working with elected officials, communities and key stakeholders in an inclusive" process. That will be tough as battle lines stretch from Lake to McHenry counties.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's important to know the board's decision diverges from previous tollway leaders' cultivation of a blue-ribbon committee's plan for a 45-mph, nature-friendly, four-lane parkway up to Route 120 that was hamstrung by a staggering $2 billion or so shortfall.

From a straw poll with 11 Lake County Board members who responded, six wanted the extension and five didn't.

"The bottom line is something needs to be done," board member Thomas Weber said. "People want to be able to get to where they're going without the headache of traffic jams."

Meanwhile board member Steve Carlson calls the $25 million "wasted" and predicts "there's no way a majority on the county board will support the Route 53 extension."

Towns that could lose land and homes and environmental groups seeking to protect fragile wetlands and species are digging in.

"With a price tag of over $100 million per mile, and considering the extended Route 53's environmental impact, I now favor less expensive expansions of existing corridors," Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz said.

Equally determined are Buffalo Grove residents close to Route 53's terminus near Lake-Cook Road who want to stop traffic spilling out into their community.

"Anyone who drives in the area can attest to the fact we are already in the midst of a transportation and traffic congestion crisis," Village Trustee Jeffrey Berman said.

4. The tollway now owns a political hot potato.

For some years, the agency kept the Route 53 extension at arm's length, providing staff, consultants and funding for plans but not committing wholly to the project.

Now with $25 million at stake, that's changed.

Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor, who opposes the extension, said Friday that "it's not a decision of local officials -- it's a tollway project. It will be decided on by the tollway and, by proxy, the governor."

Former Lake County Chairman David Stolman agreed. "If there's to be a road, they'll be the ones who decide what it looks like."

Schillerstrom has promised the consultants will consider the 45-mph, four-lane parkway vision and deliver a "solution that values congestion relief and environmental stewardship."

That's a lot to deliver, and many will be keeping tabs.

"I would be vehemently opposed to a traditional roadway," Lawlor said.

5. Commuting in Lake County is relative.

Several Lake County speakers at tollway meetings last week described dystopian commutes leaving home at the crack of dawn to make it to work on time.

Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joseph Mancino, however, noted his trip to the tollway headquarters in Downers Grove was 46 minutes.

• Got a Lake County travel story? An opinion on the Route 53 extension? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

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