No tollway board, no problem: Controversial Route 53 study keeps bringing consultants millions
Despite a leadership void at the Illinois tollway as Gov. J.B. Pritzker assembles a new team, work continues on a controversial study of extending Route 53.
It's time to "hit the pause button," one adviser thinks, but tollway officials said the agency is proceeding in accordance with federal guidelines.
Pritzker has until Feb. 28 to appoint tollway board replacements after state lawmakers passed legislation ending directors' terms amid concerns about politically motivated hiring and contracts at the agency.
One major decision for the newcomers will be whether to pursue a $25 million study on extending Route 53 north. The issue has divided Lake and north Cook County residents on whether the project is a polluting boondoggle or solution to gridlock with economic benefits.
Consultants conducting the study billed the tollway $1.34 million in November and December, state records show. Since July 2017, consultants have spent $9.6 million over 18 months, with the average monthly cost at $533,991.
A website for the Route 53 project advises that a Draft Purpose and Need Statement for the extension is coming soon.
Bridge failures like the recent one on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago prove that "while Illinois is strapped for transportation funds for high-priority projects, it's a waste of time and money ... to continue spending $25 million for consultants" on Route 53, said Environmental Law and Policy Center Executive Director Howard Learner, a tollway advisory group member.
Tollway officials said the draft purpose and need plan is being reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration, the lead agency on the project, and IDOT, a joint sponsor.
"As with any joint agency initiative, the timeline will continue to evolve as both the Illinois tollway and the Illinois Department of Transportation transition to new leadership," tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said.
Pritzker, who supports legislation ending tollway directors' terms, has stayed neutral on the Route 53 extension.
The "administration is currently reviewing projects underway and looks forward to bringing a fresh start to the agency," Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said Tuesday.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning put Route 53 on the back burner in its recent On To 2050 regional plan, which means it's currently ineligible for federal funding. Learner said that's another reason "it's completely inappropriate for the consultants to go forward without a green light" and that the tollway should pause the study.
Governors appoint the tollway board and by proxy the executive director to reflect their priorities.