Many residents of Lake County got news last summer they considered to be music to their ears. The State of Illinois was killing a proposed $3 billion extension of Route 53, which had been presented as a solution to decades of traffic congestion.
But NBC 5 Investigates discovered the taxpayers still spent tens of millions of dollars on the project - even though no concrete was ever poured.
The proposed roadway, which would have been a 45 mph toll road in its last incarnation, had faced widespread opposition.
“Over time, people began to realize that they waited 60 years for nothing,” says Tony Dean, a longtime opponent in Long Grove. “People who were thinking about this would know it was not going to be a workable solution.”
The Illinois Department of Transportation began buying land for the proposed roadway in the 1960s, eventually gathering over 1,000 acres stretching for roughly 12 miles. But as the on-again off-again project waxed and waned over five decades, new homeowners bristled at the thought of a massive roadway in their back yards.
“Over the generations, it has turned into a 12-mile road to nowhere,” said Joseph Mancino, the mayor of Hawthorn Woods. “There are just so many reasons not to do this road.”
One of those reasons was the enormous cost. Not only was the roadway budgeted at some $3 billion, but there were questions about how it would be funded without a toll increase which would be felt systemwide.
In the end, the Tollway Authority’s new executive director, Jose Alvarez, killed the road during his first few weeks on the job.
“At this time, the Illinois Tollway is not in a position to lead the development of a project that lacks both local consensus and clear financial viability,” Alvarez wrote, saying he had held wide-ranging discussions with stakeholders in the region. “It is clear to me that, based on these discussions, this is the right decision.”
NBC 5 Investigates wanted to know what taxpayers spent on a road that was never built, and apparently never will be. The answer turns out to be a lot.
Land acquisition came to some $54.3 million. A previous environmental impact study in the 1990s cost an estimated $9 million, and there was another one, when the project was known as the Lake County Transportation Improvement Project, between 1998 and 2003, costing some $6.6 million.
A recent feasibility analysis for a Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee came in at $3.19 million. There was a land use study performed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning which cost $823,000, and lastly, another environmental study which cost $9 million. ($25 million had been budgeted for that study, but it had only been partially completed when Alvarez killed the project).
All told, that was $86,913,000, for a highway that was never built.
“The sad part is that $87 million has actually made congestion worse,” Mancino said. “They’ve neglected all the traffic improvements to the network, the infrastructure up in Lake County, that would actually improve traffic.”
Tollway officials say there are still dividends from the millions spent on the project, a raft of data which will be useful for future traffic improvement plans. But many local residents say they’d like to see the land de-commissioned and rebranded as public greenspace, to put a stake in the project once and for all.
“I’m fearful of anything that the state would try to do with that property,” said David Lothspeich, the Long Grove Village Manager. “But I’m hopeful that in working with all of the communities they can come up with a really wonderful solution.”
IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell insists the agency has no future plans to build the road. “No one here is planning for the 53 extension,” he said. “We’re not expending any time or energy on that project.”
Tridgell said while the future of the space is an open question, residents will be consulted.
“Decisions will be made with local stakeholders, with the best interests of the public and the taxpayers in mind,” he said. “That’s the next step to be decided.”
Alvarez, the tollway director, made clear in an interview with NBC5, that his agency also has no plans to revisit the project.
“So this project, as far as the tollway goes, we are not involved anymore,” he told NBC5. “I strongly believe that I did the right thing by pulling my support for Route 53.”
Residents who spoke with NBC 5 seemed appalled at the cost of a road they had long insisted they didn’t want. But most quickly add that they hope it really is a dead issue.
“Who wants to live with 10 years of construction?” asks Chester Mak of Long Grove. “This has been lifted off our shoulders, and it’s great!”