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Planners want Route 53 extension to have minimal environmental impact; funding remains uncertain

05-22-12-Route-53-map

Planners envision a different kind of roadway to carry motorists north through central Lake County, with minimal impact to the wetland environment that area residents hold dear.

That vision was embodied in a report approved May 18 by the Illinois Route 53/120 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council. Members represent a cross section of public officials, planners, environmentalists, and labor and business leaders.

The full report will be presented to the Illinois Toll Highway Authority at a meeting in June. The toll authority board does not have yet have a timetable beyond the June meeting, officials said.

The report is an incremental step forward for a project that has been talked about for a half-century as a way to relieve congestion in the expanding northwest suburbs. But several issues — most notably finding up to $2.5 billion in funding — have to be resolved before the project becomes a reality.

The report, approved by the 25-member advisory council created by the toll authority, recommends that Route 53 be extended 12.5 miles from Lake Cook Road north through central Lake County, where it would intersect near Grayslake with a new bypass of Illinois Highway 120.

The project would be built as a tollway. Tolls could be “congestion-priced” — that is, the cost would depend on the level of traffic.

But the report calls for funding to come also from local revenue sources, and other means to be determined later. That could include levying tolls on the existing part of Route 53, from Lake-Cook Road south to the Jane Addams Tollway (Interstate 90) and adjusting tolls on the north Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294).

Concerns over the funding prompted two panel members to vote against the report.

“We enjoyed the dating, but we are not ready to go to the altar yet,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “The money issue of who will pay for it, and how much, has been kicked down the road.”

Learner did agree, at the request of David Stolman, council co-chairman and Lake County board chairman, to serve on any future committee dealing with the project’s financing.

As she acknowledged the need for infrastructure improvements in Lake County, Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of policy for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, questioned the recommendation to charge higher tolls during times of high traffic congestion.

“Will people be able to afford to travel on this road?” Grimshaw asked.

Despite the two no votes, Stolman described the process as a “resounding” consensus.

“It is in the Tollway’s hands now,” Stolman said.

Plans call for the extension to be four lanes wide. The maximum speed limit would be 45 mph. Much of it would be built below grade level, with landscaped earthen berms five to seven feet high on either side. Underpasses would run beneath rail lines that cross the corridor.

The proposed highway would run near or through four prime wetlands — Long Grove Surrey Marsh, Heron Creek and Egret Marsh, and Indian Creek Marsh. The report shows elevated roadways in the most sensitive areas.

The T-shaped project calls for improvements to Illinois Route 120, between U.S. Route 12 and Interstate 94, and includes two environmentally sensitive areas — Squaw Creek Complex and Almond Marsh.

The report has two possible alignments for the east-west stretch. Each would take different paths through the Squaw Creek area. One alternative would be an elevated roadway, the other a split roadway on the north side of the wetland.

Environmental concerns weighed heavily during debates leading up to passage of the report. Among the concessions to the environment are a stormwater plan to mimic natural drainage, lighting at interchanges only, and use of alternatives to road salt for snow removal.

Michael Sands, executive director of the Liberty Prairie Foundation and a member of the council, said the report has high standards and includes, “a commitment to land protection and stewardship outside of the right-of-way.”

Although he voted in favor of the report, he said: “I see this as a first step. This is not a point in time where we are signing off on a road and walking away.”

A common concern among council members representing environmental organizations was a framework and process for monitoring the environment impact of the highway after it is built and in use.

Saying she was proud of the “environmental safeguards” contained in the report, Chris Geiselhar, president of Lake County Audubon Society, stressed the need for legislation to put those safeguards in place.

Planners and developers on the council agreed the report contains creative ideas for resolving both transportation and environmental issues in an infrastructure that so much impacts the environment.

“This is probably the most environmental infrastructure program we’ve had in this state or beyond,” said council Co-Chair George Ranney, president and CEO of Metropolis Strategies. “What is needed is more imaginative work by the tollway.”

Council members representing the concerns of business and labor praised the project for identifying ways to resolve environmental concerns. But they also emphasized the need for the roadway to keep the region economically viable.

“We don’t want to forget about the mobility issue,” said John Nelson, representing the American Council of Engineering Companies. “I think it needs to be built. It will be as clean and green as anything the tollway has done.”

Local elected officials on the council also supported the plan and expressed optimism it was financially feasible.

Characterizing the report as a first step to “give the tollway a tool box to work with,” Buffalo Grove Mayor Jeff Braiman said. “There are funds that could be available.”

Despite the council’s mostly positive reception to the report, some Lake County environmentalists said they were still skeptical.

Speaking during a public comment section of the meeting, Evan Craig of the local Sierra Club criticized the proposed corridor as “the same old place.”

Craig said the board should have considered alternate routes and also developed models for predicting environmental impact.

“We continue to develop blindly,” Craig said. “What I see in this committee is more leap before you look.”

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