As tollway ends Route 53 extension study, now the question: Do what with that Lake County land?
Editor's note: This story has been changed to correctly attribute a quote to Lake County Board member Jessica Vealitzek.
Illinois tollway leaders pulled the plug Friday on an expensive environmental impact study of a Route 53 extension into Lake County, leaving open questions about what happens to 1,100 acres of land acquired for the project.
"At this time, the Illinois tollway is not in a position to lead the development of a project that lacks both local consensus and clear financial viability," Executive Director José Alvarez said Friday in a letter to tollway board directors.
Although the more than $2.7 billion project seemingly has nine lives, this is a definite roadblock for now as the study was a forerunner to potentially building the highway north to Route 120 near Grayslake.
"I'm really glad we can jump into the 21st century after 60 years of being frozen by one project," said Lake County Board member Adam Didech. His 20th District includes the Heron Creek Forest Preserve near Long Grove, where Route 53 opponents took a victory lap during a news conference Friday.
The Illinois Department of Transportation over the last 48 years acquired 1,100 acres of land for the Route 53 corridor, costing $54.3 million.
Going forward, Gov. J.B. Pritzker's "administration will work with IDOT and local officials to determine the most efficient use for the land that best meets the needs of the community and taxpayers," spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.
While Lake County residents hate the daily gridlock on major roads such as routes 120, 83 and 12, a significant contingent warns the Route 53 extension would pollute wetlands and nature preserves.
"Grassroots opposition to the project is staunch, money to build it is too scarce, and the irreparable damage it would inflict on Lake County's treasured, but fragile, natural areas is severe," Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joseph Mancino said.
Lake County Board member Jessica Vealitzek, who championed the change regarding transportation in the county's strategic plan, said in a statement the "extension would have destroyed sensitive wetlands that store rainwater and are home to vital species, (and) impaired the air quality for the people, especially children who live and go to school along the corridor."
And while supporters promised traffic relief and job creation, the $2.7 billion estimated cost is a stumper - particularly given unpopular funding solutions such as exorbitant tolls on the new road. Yet a majority of residents supported the project in a 2009 referendum.
"With 76 percent of Lake County voters in favor of the extension (less than 10 years ago), it's unfortunate to see our current elected/appointed leaders are going against the wishes of the voters," said Gregory Koeppen, executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau.
Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association CEO Mike Sturino warned the decision would leave Lake County "stuck with congestion. There will also be adverse impacts on property values, economic development, quality of life and air quality," he said. "There's no plan B."
Tollway leaders have traditionally required a "consensus" on major projects, and that seemed to be the case back in 2012 when a Blue Ribbon Committee convened by the agency approved a $2 billion to $3 billion four-lane parkway.
But when former county board Chairman Aaron Lawlor withdrew his approval in 2016, support began crumbling. Last week, the Lake County Board relegated the project to the back burner.
State Rep. Sam Yingling and Sen. Melinda Bush, Democratic lawmakers from Grayslake, both applauded the move.
"The plan to expand Route 53 is effectively dead," Yingling said. "This multibillion-dollar project that would have put an even further burden on middle-class families in my district will not continue."
Bush wasn't entirely convinced of the project's end. "It's been the most unbelievably back-and-forth project," she said. "I do know IDOT doesn't have the money."
"It's time we fixed the existing Route 120," said Bush, who supports a railroad grade separation at routes 120 and 83.
Representatives from Lake County towns, environmental groups and other stakeholders plan to work with IDOT on future possibilities for the corridor with the prevailing desire that it remain open space.
"We also are free to begin thinking imaginatively how best to repurpose the more than 1,000 acres IDOT has purchased over the last five decades," Tony Dean, past director of the Illinois Department of Conservation and former Long Grove village president, said during a news conference Friday with the Route 53 corridor as a backdrop at Heron Creek.
"Parks, trails, forest preserves, school play grounds, wildlife migration routes - these and more are possible," he said.
Former state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake advocated using the land as a "bike and hiking trail from Lake-Cook Road to Grayslake. This would also be a valuable corridor for animals to utilize while moving around Lake County," Morris said.
And state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods proposed a "multifaceted system of parks and nature areas that preserve the delicate natural habitat while allowing the public to visit."
Dedicating the 1,100 acres as open space might be a difficult sell, given Illinois' financial crisis.
"I believe they should competitively bid the land out and sell that to private developers," Republican state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills said. "There might be some small areas it makes sense to preserve for natural areas, but certainly not the full area."
Alvarez said he'd met with stakeholders before making the decision.
"Just this week, the Lake County Board adjusted their strategic plan to monitor and utilize the data developed from the (study) on Route 53/120 to help engage stakeholders in a process to evaluate and consider alternatives," Alvarez noted.
• Daily Herald staff writer Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.