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Getting the Job Done on Route 53

Since American politics now meets the Webster’s definition of gridlock, the entire Congress should descend on busy Route 53 at the Cook-Lake county border.

There, lawmakers could meet long-dueling parties who may end a 50-year-old policy dispute and show what can happen when deep differences change to constructive regional vision. “Perhaps this will be a model of how to work with others in a sandbox,” said David Stolman, chairman of the Lake County Board.

The “this” is the Illinois Route 53/120 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council. Sexy title, eh? It was formed last year by the Illinois Tollway to fish or cut bait on extending Route 53 about a dozen miles, an issue that has exhausted policy makers since 1962.

Route 53 just dies at Lake Cook Road on the Cook County-Lake County line. Think of it as a high-pressure hose on the edge of your property — in this case, spewing traffic over local roads that cannot handle it. About 103,000 cars exit at that point each day, many driven by Chicago commuters.

Lake, the state’s third-most-populous county, grew nearly 10 percent in the past decade and is an extremely sensitive area environmentally. The mayors of some communities want to lure business, but others worry about sprawl and its impact on wetlands, organic farms, heron rookeries and endangered species.

Haggling began when Kennedy was president, and the Illinois Legislature much later approved an extension of Route 53. But spats and litigation — disputes short of Middle East passions but epitomizing counterproductive rancor — derailed it.

The notion of some kind of resolution was hatched by Paula Wolff, a politically adroit Hyde Park resident. She is the chairwoman of the Tollway and Chicago City Colleges boards.

Let’s decide if an extension of Route 53 should be built, she urged — what it might look like, how much it would cost and how it would be paid for.

The council has two co-chairmen, Mr. Stolman, an advocate for an extension, and George Ranney, a civic-minded and wealthy businessman-conservationist who developed Prairie Crossing, a sustainable community of national renown in Grayslake, and a longtime opponent.

The 29 council members include politicians, planners, union leaders, environmentalists, engineers, techies and college presidents. Prominent planning, transportation and environmental consultants assist as real democracy upends a tradition of transit agencies jamming already-hatched plans down taxpayers’ throats.

The secret sauce is the planners’ agreement on goals of greater mobility, relieving congestion, environmental sensitivity, design innovation and transparency. A public meeting at Willis Tower in Chicago last week underscored that process.

There were presentations on land use, population impact and economic effects. One of the consultants, Walter Kulash, a traffic engineer in North Carolina, explained how a 45-mile-per-hour road can handle just as many cars and trucks as a 60 m.p.h. road because there can be less space between cars.

Later, breaking into separate groups, ideological counterparts worked together. Maria Rodriguez, the village president of bucolic and road-wary Long Grove, labored beside Jacky Grimshaw, a longtime Chicago Democratic activist, and together they suggested locations for underpasses and bypasses. Panel members later voted in a nonbinding secret ballot on five proposals, ranging from tree-lined low-speed parkways to a high-speed, six-lane expressway. There were estimates of the impact, cost and revenue potential of each, and choosing one did not commit the voter necessarily to favoring a road.

Mr. Ranney and all but one other member voted for a version of a 12-mile, four-lane open-tolled parkway with a maximum 45 m.p.h. speed limit.

“They seem to be settling on something almost never done in the United States: a lower-speed, smaller-footprint, environmentally benign tollway that hasn’t really been built since the 1930s,” said John Fregonese, a planner based in Portland, Ore. who specializes in contentious land-use issues.

“The real story is the process,” Mr. Kulash said. Considering the scope and complexity, nothing quite like this has happened before anywhere in the country, he said.

Members extol Mr. Stolman and Mr. Ranney as co-chairmen and hope to have a final recommendation by May.

“Until this process, I would have voted no to everything,” Mr. Ranney said.

“I’m not there yet,” he said. “But the process leads me to understand that there is some possibility for having a four-lane tolled road that protects the community character.”

If this works, Hyde Park’s most famous resident should send these guys to the Middle East.

Published: February 19, 2012

​James Warren writes a column for The Chicago News

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