The Ill-Fated Illinois Route 53/120 Project in Lake County

It's been a few years since anyone has thought about extending Illinois Route 53 north of Lake Cook Road in earnest, and the project is all but dead. Facing an incredible cost, negative environmental impact, questionable need, and public opposition, I think it's ultimately for the best that road has not, and does not, get built. That is not to say that I do not support significant improvements in Lake County's roads, but I think this was the wrong solution to the issue.

The Illinois Route 53/120 Project in Lake County, Illinois wass a proposed highway expansion project aimed at improving the existing Route 53 and Route 120 highways in the county, both of which are two lane roads today. Especially in Route 120's case, it is not designed to handle the traffic volume that occurs on it each day.

The project has been in the planning stages for several years and its purpose is to address growing traffic congestion, safety issues, and improve access to economic opportunities in the region.

Illinois 53 Right of Way sign, officially known as FAP 342. Photo: Paul Vallade, Daily Herald.

Having had a birds-eye view of Lake County's traffic problems over the better part of four years, I believe that the county would be much better served by upgrading their existing state highways, and by removing grade crossings wherever possible. Lake County seems to have more grade crossings along their roads than any of the other collar counties, which is a big creator of traffic from freight trains as well as buses who have to stop at them. 

This approach would cost millions, not billions of dollars, and would provide a far greater return on investment, in my opinion. I always found it ironic that one of the county's mantras was to build smarter, not larger roads, while at the same time, advocating for this project, at least initially. For example, I personally witnessed CN park their trains in Grayslake dozens of times with no regard for the ability of the locals to maneuver around the crossings, up to and including emergency vehicles. The 53/120 project would not have solved that issue, at least in downtown Grayslake.

But enough editorializing. Today I'm going to talk about what the Route 53/120 project was, from its initial inception in the 1950's to the near-present, where it would have traveled, how it would have impacted the region, and other related projects that it could have connected to, and ultimately created another interstate highway in the Chicago area, at least in my head.

Today's blog will cover more of the Route 53/Lake Will Freeway discussion rather than focusing on Route 120, and the since the project has been long dormant, there is a movement to decouple the two projects, and create a separate Route 120 project, which in addition to being a bit more necessary (in my opinion), also has a bit more support for it as well.


Since at least the late 1950's, there has been a proposal in some for or another for building a freeway through central Lake County, although the first mention of a highway facility actually predates Illinois' highway system, as in 1917, the first funds for present-day Illinois Route 53 were established. (Source)

Later on, improvements to the road were considered in the 1940's, and once the Interstate Highway System came into fruition, a facility linking Interstate 80 in New Lenox to the Illinois-Wisconsin State Line was first proposed in 1957 as the "Lake-Will Freeway". By the early 1970's, the proposed north end of the freeway had settled on central Lake County, with a new Illinois Route 120 freeway corridor at the end to connect with US-12 on one end, and the Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 94) on the other. The first environmental impact statement on the project in 1971 found that, assuming the facility did not get built, negative impacts to traffic in Lake County, most notably US-12 and Illinois Route 60, were likely to occur.

The present day equivalent would have the road diverge from the existing IL-120 just south of Wilson Road, and continue east around Grayslake until it connects to the existing four lane section of IL-120. It should be noted that the latest proposal for the 120 proposal was not a limited access freeway, but rather a four-lane boulevard with at-grade intersections.

Map of the western part of IL-120. Image: Illinois Tollway

The Lake-Will Freeway proposal, like many others at the time, garnered significant public support, and despite it not having been built as of the mid-60's, it nonetheless helped spur development along its proposed right of way, including the Santa Fe Argonne Industrial District.

It's hard to see in this map, but it notes the existence of the proposed road, which would become present-day I-355.

Obviously, in all but Lake County, this corridor was eventually built from Lake-Cook Road to I-80. 

The first stretch of the road to open was in the early 1970's, between Lake Street and Illinois Route 194 in Schaumburg (now Interstate 90), and was numbered as Illinois Route 53, and then multiplexed with Interstate 90 between the present-day junction with Interstate 290 and present-day I-90. In 1978, Interstate 90 switched places with 290 and eliminated IL-194 on the Northwest Tollway, meaning this section carried the I-290/IL-53 designation, which it still does today north of Biesterfield Road. 

The next section of highway opened in the early 1970's between present-day I-90 and Dundee Road, known only as IL-53. At the same time, the road was extended south another mile or so to Army Trail Road, still carrying the IL-53 designation at the time. It is for this reason that the northernmost section of I-355 is still owned and maintained by IDOT as opposed to the Illinois Tollway.

In 1984, the construction of the DuPage Tollway, as it was known at the time, was approved, and this would complete the road through DuPage County five years later in 1989 at Christmastime. As a Christmas "gift", the first two days of the road were toll-free, and complete the road between I-55 in Bolingbrook and Dundee Road in Palatine. The final stretch north to Lake Cook Road was constructed early in the 1990's.

The road through DuPage was not built without controversy, however, and a new alignment around the Morton Arboretum would have to be designed to allow construction to proceed, which is why the road today exists immediately adjacent to the East-West Tollway, present-day Interstate 88 at this spot.

Google Maps image. Despite being located next to each other, I-88 and I-355 do not share a pavement or concurrency; each is a separate road.

Additionally, having a depressed layout as opposed to an elevated layout south of Maple Ave was a sticking point of the villages in this stretch of the road; namely Downers Grove, Lisle and Woodridge.

The last issue was with the numbering. Instead of moving Illinois Route 53 onto the DuPage portion of the road, and keeping a continuous number throughout, the Illinois Tollway proposed numbering it as an Interstate, which became 355, although the FHWA argued for an even number, since it connected two Interstate highways, creating a debate as to whether the road should be 355 or 455. 

The 455 designation was close enough to becoming reality that it even made it onto a few maps, such as this Rand McNally map below.

Map of the still-unbuilt "I-455" that later became 355. (Interstate-Guide)

Ultimately, IDOT argued that the facility more resembled a spur than a bypass, and the I-355 designation was finalized. I think either argument had some basis to it. With the numbering finalized to I-290, Illinois 53 was moved back to its original alignment between Army Trail Rd and Biesterfield Rd.

I have long thought that the Lake-Will Corridor should have a single number, as opposed to the current I-355, I-290 and IL-53. As currently built, I believe the easiest way to achieve this would be to end I-290 at the present junction with I-355 and use the I-355 number to Schaumburg instead. North of I-90, instead of numbering the road Route 53, I would return the 53 designation to Hicks Road, and renumber it to I-355, or if the road was deemed not to be Interstate standard, IL-355, keeping one single number between I-80 and Lake Cook Road, and beyond assuming construction to IL-120.

Fictional IL-355 shield. Sign created using ShieldsUp!

The tollway assumed that construction south from I-55 would commence fairly quickly after 1989, and thus used "Joliet" as a control city for the tollway, and mile markers along the road started at 12.5, heading north from I-55.

This proved to be completely wrong, as a myriad of environmental concerns popped up along the corridor to I-80, most notably with the discovery of the Hine's Emerald Dragonfly in the Des Plaines River wetlands. A revised Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, settling lawsuits with the Sierra Club, and finding new funding for the road meant that groundbreaking would not commence until 2004. 

Three years later in November of 2007, the road was opened to I-80, built to six lanes in anticipation of future growth, which was anemic early on as a result of the 2008 recession, and leaving the only stretch of the original Lake-Will Freeway plan that was never built as the road in Lake County.

In 1993, IDOT and the Illinois Tollway formed a partnership to study the Illinois 53 extension in addition to the Richmond Bypass and Fox Valley Freeway in McHenry County, which is discussed a bit more below. Much like the tollway in Will and DuPage Counties, talk of a northward extension of the road was met with opposition from landowners and environmental groups. 

Despite nothing really happening with the corridor throughout the 90's and into the early 2000's, the corridor was a popular discussion among road enthusiasts online during this time, who championed hard for construction. Somewhere along the line, an interstate-highway number from I-290 to where the road would meet with IL-120, then east along IL-120 to I-94 began to emerge as Interstate 594, except that looking at planning documents from IDOT, the Illinois Tollway, and CMAP, I am unable to find I-594 referenced anywhere. This would have led to yet another number for this corridor!

The next time the project would resurface officially would be in 2009, when Lake County voters approved a non-binding referendum on the extension of IL-53.

The final proposal:

I think this is where the project truly went off the rails. In 2011, a "Blue-Ribbon" advisory council was established to assist in planning and support of the road, according to the Illinois Tollway, based on the results of the non-binding referendum. 

Their conclusion was that the corridor would be best suited by a four-lane "modern" boulevard with a 45mph design speed. An engineer I discussed the road with likened the proposal to Wisconsin's WI-794 parkway south of the Interstate, except that 794 didn't have tolls in addition to an incredibly low design speed.

The design speed was necessary to mitigate as much environmental impact as possible, while maintaining the character of the county. Even in this design, however, over 9,000 acres of open space would have been lost. (CMAP)

Artists rendition of a bridge on Route 53. Village of Grayslake

It was to be tolled at twenty cents per mile, which would have been higher than any other part of the Illinois Tollway. The same advisory council also noted the entire 25-mile project (53 and 120 included) would cost about $2.6 billion (in 2015 dollars; more today), and would face about $1.6 billion in a funding shortfall.

Study area and right of way of IL-53 and IL-120 based on the 2012 proposal. (CMAP)

The council recommended that the funds be allocated from a proposed 4 cent per gallon gas tax increase, which is completely reasonable, new tolls on Interstate 94, which is somewhat reasonable, and a special taxing district that would have taxed the proposed increase in value of properties near the road, which was completely unreasonable.

If the environmental and cultural considerations were such that the only path towards construction that was available was a facility that would be unable to handle the daily traffic on the road from day one, and would be usurped in speed and usability by free alternatives, it is safe to say, in my mind, that the road should not be built at all. One wonders if these considerations were made such that the only viable alternative would be the "no-build" option. This also doesn't even get into induced demand and development that the road would inevitably have brought. 

In 2016, after initially supporting the project, Aaron Lawlor, then Lake County Board Chairman pulled the county's support of the facility, citing the significant cost of the road.

In 2017, the Village of Hawthorn Woods "reiterated a longstanding proposal to transform the route corridor into a 1,000-plus-acre stretch of open space, natural habitat and wetlands for public recreational use and environmental stewardship." (Chicago Tribune)

After the project was taken off of CMAP's priority list, the Illinois Tollway shelved any further funding for the planning of the project, effectively shelving it, most likely for good.

Some have argued that the IL-120 bypass project should be decoupled from Route 53, in the sense that it is the much more needed thoroughfare through the county. But so far, that has not happened. Progress in mitigating congestion in the area has, however. In 2019, an infrastructure bill provided new money for IDOT roads in Lake County, including widening of the existing IL-120 and a re-alignment of the intersections on IL-83 between IL-120 and IL-137, which I think is going to greatly benefit the area, especially if a grade separation with the railroad is able to be constructed. As stated previously, I believe that the existing infrastructure within the county can be upgraded to handle traffic volumes at a much more cost-effective and environmentally sound way.

Other related projects:

The Illinois 53/120 Project was not the only expressway in northern Illinois to be shelved, as was the Richmond Bypass, which would have carried US Highway 12 from Genoa City, WI to an area south of Richmond. Very early in the planning process for the freeway, it was conceived as a Richmond to Waukegan freeway known as FAP 420 (nice).  This would have connected the road to the Tri-State Tollway, paralleling the Illinois-Wisconsin state line near what I assume would have been Illinois Route 173.

The State of Wisconsin built their segment from Elkhorn to Genoa City, leaving ghost lanes that end right at the state line about 1/3 of a mile south of there.

Google Maps
This plan was conceptualized in the Federal Aid Supplemental Freeway map from 1978.

Pictured is only northern Cook, Lake and McHenry counties, but the link shows the entirety of the proposed supplemental freeways. Some were built, some obviously were not.

As you can see, by this time, the FAP 420 was fully part of the IL-120 corridor, IL-53's right of way had been fully proposed, as had the Richmond Bypass and the Fox Valley Freeway. A few other proposals on that map, most notably the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway between Elk Grove Village and Roselle, were built. That is present-day IL-390 and is currently in the construction phase of an extension to O'Hare, although will likely never meet Elgin.

Much like with IL-53/120, local opposition, cost, questionable need and environmental impacts have all but completely shut the door on these roads. It is highly unlikely that the IL-53/120 project is resurrected; and it is even less likely that these roads are built.

Just for fun!

But as long as I'm on the topic about freeways that never will be built, and probably shouldn't be built, lets have a little fun with numbering and create a brand new Interstate highway! 

I-53. Sign created using ShieldsUp!
In an attempt to have the road be a single continuous number, and to fulfill the original plan from the 1950's in incorporating the road into a freeway from the Madison area (just in case you don't like taking I-90), I propose Interstate 53, (map in link) which connects I-55 in Wilmington with I-39/90/94 in Madison, along a 178 mile route. No, it's not a serious proposal, but as long as Google My Maps remains free, I can imagine what might have been if alternative roadway alignments had been chosen during the initial construction of the Interstate system.

As Illinois Route 53 ran through my hometown, albeit 40 miles south of its controversial extension proposal, the idea of an extension appealed to me as a kid. However, in reality, I think the right decision was made not to construct the project, something that both sides of the aisle can probably find some common ground on, whether it be primarily from an economics or environmental standpoint. 

I don't know if the door will ever be completely closed on the project, but I do know that we have learned some hard lessons with regard to highway building and the amount of cultural and environmental harm that is brought from them. I welcome your thoughts on the matter in the comments!

Thanks as always for reading!


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