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Dan Moran: Bells, whistles and cash for Route 53

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Updated: November 7, 2012 6:07AM

Route 53 was mentioned early and often during the Sept. 28 meeting of the Transportation Management Association of Lake Cook, with everyone who spoke up expressing some measure of support for the famously controversial proposal that seems to grow less controversial with each passing year/hour.

Of course, all these comments came with a grain of salt, because this is still planet Earth, and money causes it to rotate. It was noted more than once that tolls alone won’t pay for a Route 53 extension into Lake County, so bitter pills might have to be swallowed.

How bitter? I decided to delve into the 109-page “resolution and summary report” issued in June by the Illinois Route 53/120 Project Blue Ribbon Advisory Council and flush out details. Let’s review some items of interest:

As previously reported here and elsewhere, the council’s general recommendation is for a “four-lane, limited access, tolled parkway with a 45 mile-per-hour maximum operating speed” from Lake-Cook Road to Grayslake, then east toward the Tri-State Tollway and west toward the Round Lake area on Route 120.

Estimates in 2020 dollars for the two alignments studied by the council were $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion for a version featuring a limited Route 120 bypass from Grayslake to Hainesville, and $2.38 billion to $2.7 billion for one with a full Route 120 bypass to Wilson Road.

While the final product would be funded in large part through the use of tolling “under a rate structure that includes congestion pricing and indexing of toll rates” — or adjusting periodically for inflation — the council’s report noted that “other revenue options will be necessary.”

Here are some of those “other revenue options”: Toll the existing Route 53 south of Lake-Cook; add new toll collection points at the Wisconsin border and/or Route 132 in Gurnee; increase the current toll at Route 173 in Wadsworth; institute a four-cent Lake County gas tax; and/or create a .25 percent Lake County sales tax.

What are some of the bells and whistles regional motorists would get with a new Route 53? Eight primary interchanges, including at Route 22, Midlothian Road and Peterson Road. Tunnels under railroad lines. Earthen berms with native vegetation around a below-grade roadway. Elevated causeways on pylons to cross wetlands like the Indian Creek and Long Grove Surrey marshes.

The council’s vision also calls for adjoining pathways and sidewalks for bicycles and pedestrians, fences and crossings to protect wildlife, roundabouts rather than traffic signals at Route 120 intersections, and $81 million alone for restoration of wetlands and other natural areas along the new roadway.

There’s that money again. Here’s another money matter: You can drive around central Lake County as we speak and see the wide swaths of land already set aside for Route 53, but the council notes that the project would still need at least $200 million to $350 million for even more rights-of-way.

At one point, the report bluntly states that “the council struggled to develop a reasonable plan for funding this project. Some wanted the new road to completely pay for itself with toll revenues, but at least initially that is not possible.”

But it adds with something of a yawn that “the difficulty with funding costly projects is nothing new,” and says that, at the very least, “we now have a reasonable funding concept and the consensus to move forward.”

In other words, if Route 53 is like Lake County buying a car, we’re at the point where we’re sitting down haggling with the salesman. We’ll see how often he has to get up and go check things out with his manager before a deal gets done.

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