What now with Route 53 extension land? State lawmakers create task force to decide
The Route 53 extension controversy appears now to be in the hands of an advisory group -- only this time Lake County stakeholders won't be wrestling with how to build a road but rather what's next for $54 million worth of land purchased for the defunct project.
The Illinois Senate on Tuesday approved a task force to study the "cost, feasibility, and environmental impact of alternative uses of the expansion land, including any potential impact on flooding in the area," a resolution reads. State House members voted in favor April 23. Gov. J.B. Pritzker still has to sign the resolution.
The state government spent decades buying about 1,100 acres for a Route 53 extension, north from its terminus near the Lake/Cook border, that would alleviate local traffic jams.
But disagreements on the cost and size of the road, and an ongoing debate about environmental damage versus congestion relief, derailed the project in 2019 when the Illinois tollway dropped its sponsorship, citing a lack of consensus.
"This is not about building Route 53. It's about what to do with the land we own for Route 53," Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake said Wednesday. Bush was chief sponsor of the resolution.
"Some of it could be used for economic development at busy intersections, but really, I'd say it's going to be determined by the communities around it. Should part of it be open land? There's some pretty environmentally sensitive pieces of land in that corridor."
The task force's job would be to figure out "the best use of the space," said Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods. "I've heard ideas of leaving it as open land, of turning it into park space, of creating a continuous bike trail."
Possibilities could range from ceding the land to the Lake County Forest Preserve District or keeping it state property.
"Everything's on the table," McConchie said. "We obviously want to be sure the taxpayers are protected if a road is not going to be built."
The task force would include members appointed by Senate and House leaders, Lake County, the forest district, Long Grove, Mundelein, Hawthorn Woods and Grayslake. Others would represent environmental, tourism, sustainability and livability organizations.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources would help lead the process. The Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois tollway and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency also would participate.
"What we're hoping is that we all unify around a common goal, in general, for preservation and recreation and open space," said Barbara Klipp, executive director of the Midwest Sustainability Group.
Environmental advocates also said retaining wetlands on the properties would prevent flooding.
The acreage comprises "a ready-made, iconic, natural sanctuary that could become a regional destination and a crown jewel among natural areas in Lake County," said Mike Truppa, a spokesman for several county environmental groups. The land could offer "some economic benefits in creating opportunities for compatible eco tourism," he added.
However, "there was lot of money that was used to purchase that land," said Gregory Koeppen, executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau, which supported extending Route 53.
"A lot of it was purchased with the understanding that it was going to become a Route 53 and help relieve congestion and allow for future development, (providing) even more tax revenue for surrounding towns," Koeppen said. "You don't want to rush in and come up with a plan that's just OK. You want a plan that's going to be exceptional."
As members have to be appointed, the first meeting may not occur until the fall. Task force members would have to meet a minimum of four times and file a report before Dec. 31, 2022.
Many state and county entities have grappled with the fate of the extension during the last 50 years.