State should move quickly to create a park along unused Route 53 right of way in Lake County

Finding an unbroken, contiguous stretch of open land is hard in an urban area. Some environmentalists worry this idea is on the back burner.

SHARE State should move quickly to create a park along unused Route 53 right of way in Lake County
A vista of some of the land that would be preserved if the last send aside for the Route 53 extension becomes a park.

A vista of some of the land that would be preserved if the land set aside for the Route 53 extension becomes a park.

Kaavya Vassa/Openlands

Lake County has a chance to have its own version of Chicago’s The 606 trail or the western suburbs’ Prairie Path. Gov. J.B. Pritzker should push to get the project going.

In December, the Illinois Route 53 Expansion Land Alternative Use Task Force voted to make a park out of land the state had purchased back in the 1960s for the possible northern extension of Route 53. Route 53 now ends near Lake-Cook Road, and traffic data show the extension is not needed. The land for the road has remained open.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime visionary opportunity for the county and the region to gain an environmental jewel, but before work can begin in earnest the 1,100 acres of land must be transferred from the Illinois Department of Transportation to the Department of Natural Resources. The transfer also will ensure part of the land corridor isn’t snapped up for other uses before the new park is in place.

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Transferring the land should happen as quickly as possible. Finding an unbroken, contiguous stretch of open land is hard in an urban area. But some environmentalists worry the idea has somehow been pushed onto the back burner.

Proponents of a new park envision using the swath of open right of way as a linear park with trails and sensitive natural habitats. Bike trails in the new park could link fragmented existing trails in various townships. With those existing trails as a link, Chicagoans could bicycle north to ride through Lake County. The open land also would help with flood prevention and encourage recreation and eco-tourism.

“We think it is such a great asset for the whole region,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club and a member of the task force. “A lot of these parcels were left undeveloped [to keep them] available for the future road project. That actually had the effect of preserving them until now, when we can make them available to the public.”

Parts of the land are home to old-growth oak forest, prime bird habitat and undisturbed wetlands, all of which are well worth preserving. The linear park also would give plants and animals a pathway as they gradually migrate north because of climate change, Darin said.

Making the park a reality will require a lot of work. The right-of-way the park would use consists of many separate parcels. Decisions must be made on how to allow trails to bypass existing roads that cross the right of way. Funding must be secured. Staff at the DNR, which has a new director and is recovering from years of cuts, must be increased, especially if the land is to be used as a new state park. Adjoining municipalities and townships and other stakeholders will have their say in creating a unified vision for the park.

But now is the time to act, when federal money through such programs as the Inflation Reduction Act is likely to be more available to move the project forward. Moreover, other transportation improvements are on hold while officials await an absolutely final decision that the Route 53 extension will not be built, which could affect the need for those other improvements.

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The 606 and the Prairie Path, both of which were built on former railroad right of way, have become immensely popular among people in congested urban areas who want to go jogging, ride a bike or simply take a walk.

The land once envisioned for the Route 53 extension has been idle for some 60 years as it became increasingly clear a new road is not needed. Now is the time to put that land to use in a way that benefits the public and the environment.

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