'Effectively dead’: Illinois Tollway puts the brakes on Route 53 extension study through Lake County

News from the media

By Frank Abderholden, Daily Herald, July 12, 2019

Citing a lack of support from Lake County officials and financial constraints, Illinois Tollway officials announced Friday that they are ending their current multimillion-dollar efforts toward a Route 53 extension north of Lake Cook Road.

“As of (Friday) afternoon, the Illinois Tollway has asked the Federal Highway Administration to rescind the Notice of Intent for the Tri-County Access Environmental Impact Statement,” Tollway Executive Director José R. Alvarez said in a statement, referring to a projected $25 million plan to collect environmental data along the proposed Palatine-to-Grayslake corridor.

“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,” Alavarez added. “Over the past several months I have taken the time to learn about this study, engage stakeholders, and listen to the position of local leaders on the future of transportation in the study area. It is clear to me that, based on these discussions, (ending the study) is the right decision.”

Alvarez also noted that the Lake County Board voted this week to adjust its strategic transportation plan to “monitor and utilize the data developed from the EIS on Route 53/120 to help engage stakeholders in a process to evaluate and consider alternatives" rather than back the roadway’s construction.

The latest environmental study, also known as the Tri-County Access Project, traces its roots back to 2015, and the Tollway board approved $25 million in funding for the project in 2017. According to Friday’s statement, $13 million of that had already been spent on the study, and another $25 million would have needed approval early next year to complete the Environmental Impact Statement.

A Route 53 extension has been debated for decades and would construct a new 25-mile roadway from Lake Cook up to Route 120, where designs have also called for an east-west component toward the Tri-State Tollway. A cost estimate in 2017 came in at around $2.65 billion.

Opponents of the Route 53/120 plan celebrated Friday at the Heron Creek Forest Preserve in Long Grove, using an area of the preserve that would have included the roadway as a backdrop for the announcement funding was cut for the environmental impact statement.

“This is a huge win for the good people of Lake County,” said Barbara Klipp, executive director of Midwest Sustainability, a group that has been working with the Lake County Board and a number of other environmental groups on the issue.

“This effectively kills the project — and not for the first time. This is the fourth time this project has been studied and stopped,” Kilpp added. “It is clear that this project will never have the funding nor the consensus necessary to continue, and it’s high time for the good people of Lake County to remove the albatross that is the Rt. 53/120 project from around their necks.”

Lake County Board Chair Sandy Hart said this move by the tollway could finally open up “many other projects that have been held up waiting for a decision on Route 53.”

Board member Jessica Vealitzek, who pushed this week for the County Board’s revised strategic transportation plan, praised the Tollway’s decision.

“The Route 53 extension would have destroyed sensitive wetlands that store rainwater and are home to vital species, impaired the air quality for the people, especially children, who live and go to school along the corridor, cost almost $3 billion, and perhaps worst of all—it would not have solved the congestion problem," Vealitzek said. “The Tollway Authority made the right decision.”

Opponents of the concept have long pointed to the impact on the region’s environmental features, including woods and wetlands along the proposed corridor through Long Grove, Hawthorn Woods, Mundelein and Grayslake.

On Friday, Long Grove Village President Bill Jacob remarked on the beauty of the Heron Creek Forest Preserve, which he said will be protected by a shift to modernizing existing roads like Route 22.

“It’s such a beautiful day out here, and it’s nice to have this event here because we’re protecting what is behind us," Jacob said, adding that Route 53 has been "on the docket to be widened for such a long time, and it has not happened. One single widening of a two lane road to four lanes would make a tremendous impact on this area.

Jacob added that the state’s focus should shift to the roughly 1,000 acres owned by the state for the would-be roadway’s corridor and how to repurpose it. Echoing that call was Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joseph Mancino.

“In the wake of this decision, we call on the Tollway, the Illinois Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration to decommission the Route 53 corridor and work with relevant state and local agencies to convert it into a permanent greenway for public recreational use and environmental stewardship,” Mancino said.

He added that local, state and federal agencies should study concepts that include arterial lane widenings, grade separations where roads cross railroads, and enhanced commuter rail service.

“Let’s put our roadbuilders to work now," Mancino said, “instead of lining the pockets of consultants with millions of dollars that could be invested in our infrastructure.”

Anna Pieta of Save Indian Creek Wetlands said the Route 53 corridor — which carves through such areas as Mundelein’s Cambridge West subdivision — borders the backyards of dozens of homes for hundreds of residents.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, also remarked on how the project would keep coming back.

“Let’s acknowledge that the Route 53 tollway seems to have nine lives, but hopefully this is the last,” he said in a statement. “This is a big victory and turning point for better transportation solutions in Lake County and the Chicago region. The Illinois Tollway has thrown in the towel, and the Lake County Board has de-prioritized the Route 53 extension, which isn’t financially viable and the public doesn’t want. Together, they are bringing this boondoggle and environmentally destructive tollway to its well-deserved end."

State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, responded to the tollway’s decision in a little more guarded fashion in a statement, pointing to at least one glaring commuter nightmare that needs attention.

“The future of the Route 53 project may be uncertain, but it doesn’t change the fact that Lake County residents need transportation solutions that improve public safety, and provide congestion relief while protecting our environment,” said Bush. “It’s time we fixed the existing Route 120. It’s a feasible, cost-effective solution that will provide tangible benefits to Lake County commuters.

“The State of Illinois needs to build on the work of our local mayors and implement the 120 Corridor Capacity Plan, including the grade level separation at 120 and the 83 railroad crossing.”

Bush’s General Assembly colleague in the region, state Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, said he looks forward forward “to working towards fixing our county’s roads without the distraction that Route 53 caused.”

“With the Environmental Impact Study expected to be cancelled, the plan to expand Route 53 is effectively dead," Yingling added. “I am pleased to hear that this multi-billiondollar project that would have put an even further burden on middle-class families in my district will not continue.”

County Board member Steve Carlson joked at the Heron Creek Forest Preserve gathering that the Route 53 concept has nearly been around since he was a little boy, and he is 70 years old now.

“It’s been a long and winding road. That song is about as old as Route 53,” he said, referencing the Beatles song released in 1970. “The fiscal, environmental and political hurdles proved too hard to overcome. Today’s welcomed announcement for the tollway board validates that judgment.

“Let’s move on to projects that are practical, possible, and a benefit to all of Lake County, which will create jobs in the near future."

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