Who decides on making Route 53 extension land a state park? Enter Pritzker, and road bumps
After decades of agitation, a task force is poised to vote on whether to convert $54.3 million of Lake County land purchased for a highway into a greenway and possible state park.
It took 48 years for the Illinois Department of Transportation to amass 1,100 acres for a Route 53 extension from Cook County into Lake County intended to relieve traffic.
But in 2019, with Lake residents divided on building the $2.7 billion road, its last sponsor, the Illinois tollway, marooned the project shortly after Gov. J.B. Pritzker took office.
So if the Route 53 task force approves transferring all or much of the land from IDOT to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who makes the final call?
That would be Pritzker and agency leaders, the governor's office confirmed Thursday -- with a funding caveat.
"I would note that the Department of Natural Resources will not accept land without adequate funding for operations and regular maintenance," spokesman Alex Gough said.
"The administration has been clear with members of the task force and involved stakeholders about the state's need for a land portfolio that is aligned with resources the General Assembly is willing to appropriate."
So far, it looks like the task force, which includes lawmakers, mayors and environmental groups, is leaning toward taking from IDOT and giving to IDNR.
But along with budgeting, there are other road bumps.
IDOT balked at a carte blanche land donation at a Nov. 21 meeting, noting state highways like routes 60 and 83 cut through the corridor.
"We want to make sure we are providing buffers along those corridors so we don't have a situation where all the property along the corridor is somehow designated something and then we're in the process of having to deal with a tangled mess later trying to widen the roadway with plans that are already in place," program development engineer John Baczek noted.
State legal experts are teed up to navigate those knots when the task force reconvenes this month.
At that meeting, Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz will be a "no" vote. The village wants the property to stay with IDOT as interim open space with flexible uses like farming or recreation.
"If we keep growing, eventually there will be need for another corridor in central Lake County, and it is Mundelein's position it would not be good governance to forever doom central Lake County to be traffic-impacted," Lentz said.
Smelling victory, environmentalists continue to stress the benefits of the proposed greenway. Plans range from a state park with nature trails to the preservation of rare wetlands that will protect endangered species and reduce flooding, they said.
Volunteers with grass-roots groups like Livable Lake County contacted 500 households, and nearly all agreed with the transfer, organizer Sam Beard said at a Mundelein board meeting Nov. 28.
"Getting the land out of the hands of the road builders once and for all and over to the conservation agencies is the obvious first step we need to protect this place," Beard said.
Before a ribbon cutting, a communications strategy is probably a good idea. Because for every stakeholder passionate about the issue, many in the region are just learning that a new state park is gestating.
"I don't know who is pushing this greenway," reader Michael Stone of South Elgin commented last week. He thinks that "if a highway could and should be built -- it should be Route 53."
But former state senator and tollway board director Bill Morris of Grayslake contends a greenway not only would be an environmental jewel for Lake, but it also could solve traffic problems.
For years, the county has lagged in state road dollars because the conventional wisdom was "wait for Route 53 -- that will solve your problems," Morris said.
If the extension is truly dead, then useful projects like a grade separation at routes 120 and 83 would be in line for state revenues, he theorized.
"I would like to see this resolved before I'm planted," added Morris, who is in his 70s.
One more thing
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning will hold free Americans With Disabilities Act workshops in early 2023. For info, go to cmap.illinois.gov/programs/accessibility/ada-training.
You should know
Registration is open for Metra's 16th annual Safety Poster and Essay Contest for kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the metro region. This year's theme is "Stay Safe, Stay Off Train Tracks." To learn more, go to metra.com/contest.