Tollway leaders pushed forward Monday with a $25 million contract to study extending Route 53 north amid objections from Lake County residents who called it a "boondoggle" and a "charade" at a planning committee meeting.
Monday's vote was preliminary with a final decision coming at Thursday's board meeting.
The project would build a new road up to Route 120 in Lake County with tolls of about 20 cents a mile. However, a shortfall of at least $2 billion looms.
"An environmental impact study looks at whether the road should be built and looks at the routes and will answer questions raised," Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said. "Obviously, it's an important issue with the congestion up there."
But former state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake implored members to reconsider. "Stop the Route 53 foolishness," he said, suggesting that the project was just "appeasement for the road builders," to garner donations for political campaigns.
"You're wasting millions of public dollars to study Route 53 when you don't have $3 billion to build it," he said. "That's irresponsible and I would contend an illegal use of tollway funds." Instead, the priority should be upgrading Route 120 and 83, Morris suggested.
Opponents of the extension worry it will cause environmental damage and they object to high toll rates, a proposed gas tax and special taxing district needed as the road cannot pay for itself. The estimated cost is up to $2.7 billion and a shortfall of up to $2.3 billion was projected.
Supporters say the road will create jobs and spur economic development as well as fix traffic jams in Lake County and north Cook County, where Route 53 peters out.
The contract is with engineering firms California-based CH2M Hill Inc. and Knight E/A Inc. in Chicago. The tollway has authorized up to $50 million for an environmental impact study.
Director Neli Vasquez Rowland of Bartlett said she intended to "take a deeper dive" by checking the route and talking to Lake County residents before Thursday. "I'm not done with my due diligence," she said.
Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson advised opponents to "embrace" the environmental impact study. "An EIS will answer all the things you want to know," he said. "And, if it's bad, it won't go. Whether you're for it or against it ... work with it and we'll get a definitive answer."
Barbara Klipp, co-chair of Livable Lake County, wondered why there is no Lake County representative on the tollway board and asked for an update of project costs, adding that estimates are based on construction starting in 2020.
"Since you predict that the EIS will take three to five years, that timeline is no longer possible," Klipp said.
Anthony Dean, an investment banker and former Long Grove mayor, compared the tollway to "three sailors on a bender with billions and billions of our toll dollars. Some of you are under the delusion you have unlimited debt capacity -- you don't."
Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor withdrew his support for the extension a year ago, but board member Sid Mathias still thinks the project is worthwhile and will fix gridlock in Lake County and at Lake-Cook and Arlington Heights roads close to the Route 53 terminus.
"It's the only place I know where a road ends without going into another major road," he said.