Opponents of the proposed Route 53 north extension have enthusiastically endorsed what was described as a "bold and courageous" stance by Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor to close the books on the plan and transform the corridor into a nonmotorized greenway.
Activists were joined Tuesday by Lawlor and several Lake County Board members and other elected officials near Lake Leopold in the Prairie Crossing conservation community in Grayslake to support Lawlor's surprising announcement Monday to scrap the controversial plan because of cost and other factors.
"The reality is the Route 53 extension is never going to happen. The support for this project is collapsing like a house of cards," said Barbara Klipp, co-chairwoman of Livable Lake County, a grass-roots group with connections to the Sierra Club and other organizations.
Several speakers shared that view during a news conference near where the proposed extension would connect with Route 120.
Klipp said opponents always have maintained the proposed Route 53 extension, estimated to cost $2.3 billion to $2.65 billion, was "unneeded, unaffordable and unfair" and would create irreversible sprawl and destroy open space. She said environmental organizations were unified in opposition.
"We are for investments in projects that will reduce traffic, are affordable and can be done quickly," she said.
Klipp said supporters want the state-owned Route 53 corridor decommissioned and high-quality natural resources protected in perpetuity.
Tony Dean, a former Long Grove mayor and one-time chief of what is now the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the proposal has always been environmentally damaging.
"For more than 40 years, it has been a block on any real transportation improvements in Lake County," he said.
In his announcement, Lawlor suggested a "new course" for the corridor include a trail system and the opportunity for "balanced" economic developments.
Lawlor co-chaired a diverse blue-ribbon panel that in 2012 recommended proceeding with an environmentally sensitive road design envisioned as a national model. He had been a staunch supporter of a four-lane, 45 mph tollway to relieve traffic congestion and spark economic development. Extending Route 53 has been a controversial idea for more than 50 years.
"We always said this was our last, best chance," Lawlor said. "The key all along was the tollway stressed to me personally this project needed a consensus of community leaders."
Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joe Mancino said he told state and tollway officials the village was not going to drop its opposition.
"There truly is no consensus in the region, and this is something the tollway has always asked for," he said.
Lawlor said there was no specific action that caused the change of heart, but that it came after a series of recent conversations with Illinois State Toll Highway Authority officials and others. Lawlor said he thought the project would be delayed by legal action and other factors, causing the already daunting $1.9 billion deficit for the project to increase.
Fearing environmental safeguards would be cut to save money and that political gridlock would handcuff needed state involvement in certain aspects of the project, Lawlor said he concluded the financial and political realities have become insurmountable. He has asked that the tollway not proceed with an environmental impact study that would take four years and cost $40 million to $50 million.
Tollway board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom said Monday he planned to proceed with the study. Lawlor said Tuesday he has not spoken with tollway officials but is going directly to Gov. Bruce Rauner's office to intervene by not allowing contracts to be finalized.
Rauner, who appointed a new tollway administration last year, has declined to comment.