Route 53 task force gives green light to greenway as IDOT demurs

A state task force on Friday recommended that hundreds of acres bought by the Illinois Department of Transportation to extend Route 53 be converted to a greenway.

That wasn't without pushback from IDOT officials, who warned the resolution in favor of transferring much of the property worth $54 million to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources could hamstring future road projects.

Whether to extend Route 53 north from Cook County has roiled Lake County for decades. While many residents wanted a corridor to reduce traffic, the project cost was in the billions. A push to save wetlands and natural areas has grown in popularity with hopes of creating a state park.

"It's so important at this time in our world that we're preserving natural areas, that we're making sure we have places that not just sustain our souls, but sustain the planet," task force Co-Chairwoman and state Sen. Melinda Bush said. "And we won't have to 'rewild' this - because it's going to stay this way,"

Sixteen of 19 members on the task force supported the overall greenway plan, Mundelein disapproved, while IDOT and Visit Lake County abstained.

Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz and village trustees think the land should stay with IDOT and have interim uses such as 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 previously.

The issue now goes to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the chiefs of IDOT and IDNR. Another task force is expected to be chosen to work out future details.

The General Assembly also would need to weigh in on the second task force and eventual funding - if the IDNR adopts the greenway.

The task force resolution strongly recommends IDOT officials transfer all their state-owned interests in land bought for Route 53 to IDNR, "reserving to IDOT the minimum easements, rights of way, or interests necessary for roadway improvement projects adjacent to state highways that are in progress or budgeted" currently.

IDOT Program Development Engineer John Baczek opposed the language, saying it would impinge on fixes to roads such as routes 83 or 120.

That prompted a skirmish between state experts citing provisions in federal law such as the National Environmental Policy Act.

"Basically, it'll put an encumbrance on the properties that will make it very difficult for the state to utilize that for transportation purposes," Baczek said.

The IDNR's Bob Spencer disagreed, saying the agencies "can usually find a way to work through it."

Bush said any changes would not affect a potential grade separation at routes 83 and 120.

Individuals voting "eyes" for the land transfer included GOP Senate Leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods. Republican state Rep. Chris Bos of Lake Zurich, the mayors of Grayslake, Long Grove and Hawthorn Woods, and representatives from environmental groups.

"Just about everyone and their mother wants to see this land protected," Livable Lake County organizer Sam Beard said. "The movement for the Lake County greenway is growing, and it's growing rapidly."

It took IDOT 48 years to amass 1,100 acres for the extension. But in 2019, with no consensus among Lake County residents on building the $2.7 billion road, its last sponsor, the Illinois tollway, gave up the project shortly after Pritzker took office.

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