Wednesday, August 10, 2011

LWV Testifies at Tollway Hearing

Tollway Forum draws discussion of Route 53 extension

By Amy Alderman TribLocal reporter Friday at 6:43 p.m. (Libertyville) 7-15-11

Click here to read the story at the TribLocal site

Most people in the standing-room only crowd that recently packed an Illinois Tollway forum in Libertyville said it’s time to get on the road with a Route 53 north extension. And many said tolls on the route could pay for the project.

But since Gov. Pat Quinn supports a west bypass on the Elgin-O’Hare expressway as the next project for the tollway system, Route 53 lingers at the bottom of the state’s top five projects for the next ten years.

“We heard a clear message from voters,” Lake County Board Chairman Dave Stolman said at the Illinois Tollway Capital Planning Forum on July 15. “They want 53 built. We know the extension is vital to economic development. It would promote diversity in our tax base. We are pleased and excited the tollway is considering these projects.”

Although it’s not first, neither is the Route 53 extension last on the tollway’s to-do list. Many other prospective Tollway road projects are not in the 10-year plan, said Bill Morris, a director on the Illinois Tollway board.

Plus, building a toll extension of Route 53 is an alternative to not building an expressway expansion at all, when state funds aren’t there to make it happen.

That way the drivers who are using the road would be the ones paying for the extension, tollway officials said. In the meantime, the tollway system is paying for projects as it goes while grappling with just $5.1 billion in projected revenue and $6.1 billion in projected costs, leaving a $1.1 billion gap, said Kristi Lafleur, Illinois Tollway executive director.

“Route 53 has made the cut. It’s not going away, but one year is just a way to figure out what we’re doing about it,” he said. “This is going to cost a bucket full of money.”

That’s why tollway officials appointed 25 people to an Illinois Route 53 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on June 30. Members are both for and against the extending the expressway through Lake County.

The advisory council has been charged with developing a regional consensus on whether or not to move forward on the Illinois Route 53 extension, the scope and configuration, the design and elements, and how to finance the project, according to the Illinois Tollway.

“It is daunting to move from controversy to consensus,” said George Ranney, who was appointed by Illinois Tollway officials as council co-chair, along with Stolman.

Ranney has historically been against a Route 53 extension. Tollway officials found a way to bend his ear to get involved in this round of the discussions because of new technologies that would lessen the impact on the environment, and the expertise of the diverse Blue Ribbon panel.

“The advisory council has a whole lot of promise,” he said. “There are ways of working the road through wetlands to avoid a Los Angeles type big modern highway. Although I was opposed in the past, I’m willing to work with the group to try to make it work. I would like to see a good and constructive solution.”

But not everyone is for the extension.

Mary Mathews, a Lake County League of Women Voters representative, said that the 2009 Lake County Referendum showing a 76 percent approval rating for the extension isn’t an accurate portrayal of what residents want. Several people noted that the referendum didn’t include information about using tolls to pay for an extension.

There were 89,522 votes cast in that election, which makes up 22 percent of registered voters in Lake County, according to Lake County Circuit Clerk records. Of those votes 64,000 voted for extending route 53 through Lake County, and 20,462 people voted against it.

“We are for the upkeep of the current system, but 76 percent of people were voting for it on a light turnout. That was not 76 percent of residents,” Mathews said. “We need mass transportation. We do not need more roads. That should be the primary focus, and taking care of what we already have.”

Environmentalists as well as some officials overseeing the wetlands where the extension would run through were also not all in favor of the extension.

“I have historically been opposed to the road because it could impact a wetland,” said Maria Rodriguez, Long Grove President. “We have got to be very careful on how we protect natural drainage system.”

Members of the Lake County Audubon Society, the Liberty Prairie Foundation and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, who are on the Advisory Council, shared cautious, but optimistic voices on the possible impact on wildlife and wetlands in Lake County.

“The bottom line is the roads have been impressive,” Sarah Wochos, senior policy advocate. “We want to make sure we minimize the impact. We remain optimistic about the future.”

There were many jeers about the discussion of extending Route 53 farther into Lake County being nearly a half-century old subject at the three-hour forum.

“This is the time to fish or cut bait,” Morris said.

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