Like It or Not, the RFQ for the O’Hare Express Means the Project Is Moving Forward

Some say it will be a boon for Chicago, others say it will be a boondoggle.

The O'Hare Blue Line station. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
The O'Hare Blue Line station. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s highly controversial plan for creating a premium-priced express train service to carry business people and other well-funded travelers between downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport took a step towards becoming a reality today. The city, in coordination with the Chicago Infrastructure Trust issued a request for qualifications to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the rail service through a public-private partnership with the city. The goal is to shorten the airport trip from the current 40 to 45 minutes via the Blue Line to 20 minutes or less.

“Express service to and from O’Hare will give Chicagoans and visitors to our great city more options, faster travel times, and build on Chicago’s competitive advantage as a global hub of tourism, transportation and trade,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Strengthening connections between the economic engines of downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport, at no cost to taxpayers, will build on Chicago’s legacy of innovation and pay dividends for generations to come.”

According to the city, the release of the RFQ follows analysis from a working group formed last year to determine the practicality of the express train project. The working group studied demand for ridership, potential terminal, and possible routes and alignments. The RFQ will be issued to determine private sector interest in building and running the express service

The document states that the rail service should include a downtown station, an airport station and a maintenance facility. The city and the infrastructure trust will consider potential elevated or below-ground corridors. (In July tech guru Elon Musk offered the services of his new excavation business the Boring Company, proposing to whisk travelers to O’Hare in tunnels via largely hypothetical “electric sled” technology.)

Streetsblog Chicago commissioned this highly realistic rendering of Elon Musk's "electric proposal." Image: Jonathan Roth
Streetsblog Chicago commissioned this highly realistic rendering of Elon Musk’s “electric sled” proposal, with muskrats for passengers. Image: Jonathan Roth

In addition to cutting travel time to the airport by than 50 percent compared to the ‘L’, the O’Hare Express RFQ calls for service at least every 15 minutes during most of the day – the Blue Line runs every four to ten minutes. The cost of the express fare is supposed to be cheaper than a cab ride to the airport from the Loop, which the city estimates to be around $60, or a ride-share trip, estimated at roughly $40. Chicago aviation chief Ginger Evans has previously projected that an express ticket would cost between $25 and $35, compared to the current ‘L’ fare of $2.25 to O’Hare and $5 from it. “Any proposal must also address how potential conflicts or impacts on existing transportation systems and the environment would be avoided or minimized,” the city said in a statement.

The RFQ stipulates that the express service will be funded solely by project-specific revenues like fares or advertising, and financed entirely by the concessionaire. However, Evans has previously conceded that public funds will likely be used for building the stations.

The city and the infrastructure trust plan to choose one or more respondents that they consider most qualified to successfully respond to a subsequent request for proposals RFQ responses are due on January 24.

While deputy mayor Bob Rivkin, a former CTA and federal transportation official, recently told Crain’s Greg Hinz that he believes the project is doable, there’s reason to believe the express service could become a major boondoggle for the city. After all, Mayor Richard M. Daley spent some $250 million on a “superstation” underneath Block 37 in hopes of creating an airport, but that facility now sits empty. Evans has ruled out using that structure for the new service arguing it’s “not a feasible terminus” because it would disrupt nearby CTA lines.

A rendering of a possible design for an express train station at O’Hare. Image: City of Chicago
A rendering of a possible design for an express train station at O’Hare. Image: City of Chicago

Last year urban planner Daniel Kay Hertz skewered Emanuel’s proposal in a Chicago magazine piece. He argued that the premium-priced service, costing dozens of dollars, won’t even attract its target ridership of people with deep pockets or expense accounts. For example, Toronto’s Union Pearson Express had dismal ridership until fares were slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9.

Hertz also noted that the Blue Line is already a popular train route to O’Hare, and the current Your New Blue renovation project could shave up to five minutes off the trip from O’Hare to the Loop. Moreover, since the most likely corridor for the express service is Metra’s North Central Service, which currently stops on the northeast side of the airport, the downtown express terminal is likely to be Union Station. When you factor in the additional waiting time for the express due to longer headways than the Blue Line, plus the cab or ride-share trip from Union Station to Michigan Avenue hotels, he argues, the expensive train wouldn’t be much faster or more convenient than the cheap one.

The Active Transportation Alliance has previously argued that the O’Hare Express represents a distraction from the transportation needs of ordinary Chicagoans. “We should focus on connecting the spokes in our hub-and-spoke transit system to better serve neighborhoods outside the Loop,” director Ron Burke told me last year. He added that extending existing rail lines and giving buses priority with dedicated lanes “would be more efficient investments that would provide greater benefits.”

But whether you believe the O’Hare express will be another gem in Chicago’s transportation crown, or simply an expensive, little-used white elephant, it looks like the project has momentum.

  • david vartanoff

    Daniel Kay Hertz was and is correct–insufficient demonstrated need and way too high fare. That said, if hizzoner insists on this crony/oligopoly/kleptocrat project, then we should at least demand it be done right.
    So, first, Metra needs to obtain the St Charles Air Line so the train can continue from Union Station to a new multimodal station at McCormick Place.
    Second, in the bargain, Union Station needs to lose the office tower over the rabbit warren and get back a decent concourse one level up with the tracks linked N-S so that all trains can move through rather than back in and out.
    Third, the fare should be no higher than Metra charges for the same distance on other lines.

    Bonus project. bTake the Block 37 cave and build a CTA (and other Chicago transit transit) Museum. Great location, excellent transit access, and a start, endpoint for excursions on historic museum trains.
    (New York dos this)

  • Jeremy

    Something i never see mentioned in articles (pro and con) about the express: if the fare is $30, a married couple or two people travelling for work would have to pay $60 for two tickets (plus the taxi fare to get from the train station to the destination). It would be cheaper to take a taxi from the airport and get door to door service.

  • rwy

    Why not an express bus? Use special buses for the route that have a place to store luggage and have it run on the shoulder of the Kennedy when traffic is backed up.

  • https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/city-seeking-parties-to-fund-build-operate-ohare-express-service/amp/

    So the news is Musk thinks he can do it. Fund build operate sans tax dollars. That one is likely going to be heavily asterisked. Yes he may be able to pull in tons of venture capital.

    The dangers as I see it are two. Opportunity costs of unfinished project and/or bankrupted finished project.

    And one opportunity high on the sacrifice list is the connection south to the electric lines.

  • Frank Kotter

    Ah….. The Metra from an inappropriately named ‘O’hare transfer’ takes you to Union in 33 minutes and costs you 6 bucks. The problems are that it only leaves every 2 hours and gets you neither near the airport, the Rosemont L nor any other transport options.

    95% of the heavy lifting is already done. But the ‘solution’ is to reinvent the wheel? This makes no sense. What would actually benefit me is an actual ‘O’hare’ station which takes you to the existing O’hare L station right at the terminal and run it every 20 minutes. If the city really wants to bury something and make it go fast, bury the last 1 mile of this new spur right to the airport basement.

    Hell, make it 10 bucks. The thing would be packed.

  • Tooscrapps

    Nice to see the Forest Park branch is the the RFQ discussion though.

    O’Hare express or not, it would be nice to see them add a 3rd track along the line and run some express trains during peak hours. With the excess capacity, you could in-fill some of the shuttered stops. The obvious limitation is when it goes to a subway in the Loop.

  • FlamingoFresh

    This should express line should be privately owned. The City doesn’t need to waste their money and resources running this.

  • Roland Solinski

    The Kennedy shoulders are not wide enough to operate a bus safely (or at all, really).

  • ardecila

    If the project can be privately-funded (i.e. it doesn’t steal funding from other important projects), I’m not against it. Toronto’s experience suggests that such a rail service will struggle to be profitable, but if real estate development is part of the deal, it could work.

    Of course, that’s the whole purpose of an RFQ. Motivated parties (developers, construction companies, etc) will look for a way to make a deal work. Nobody has a magic answer yet, even Elon Musk. It’s a competitive bid, so in theory there is an incentive to seek little or no public funding in each proposal.

  • ardecila

    Limited capacity on trains isn’t the reason those stops closed… the neighborhoods rapidly depleted population after the construction of the Eisenhower (and the MLK riots, etc) and there wasn’t enough ridership to sustain those stations, especially when many folks could just as easily walk to a different station.

    I could see a need for an express track if the Blue Line is ever extended out to Oak Brook or Lombard as some planners have suggested.

    Side note: It would be nice if the O’Hare Express included a third stop at Forest Park with a big garage. Parking + rail fare would likely be around the same as parking closer to the airport, and Forest Park, Berwyn etc could see a bump in property values with the stronger airport access.

  • Tooscrapps

    Didn’t mean to imply that capacity was the reason those stops were shuttered. But, most stops on that branch of the Blue are ~1+ miles apart, which is further than most lines. Obviously, the density isn’t there yet. But, as we are seeing with infill stations on the Green Line, there is potential down the road.

    However, my issue with all the infill on the Green Line is the potential decline in ridership from Oak Park as the travel times get extended. On the Blue line you could add new stops and an express with 2-3 intermediate stops without lengthening the commute times for those from Forest Park and Oak Park.

    If the O’Hare Express went that route, there most likely would be a stop in Forest Park, but I doubt a large garage would be needed.

  • kastigar

    Look for the fine print in any final contract. It may contain a provision that the income produced my be at a certain level, or the city/state must pony up any difference.

    It should be completely privately funded and the investor takes all of the risks about earning enough income to make it worthwhile. If an investor doesn’t want to take 100% of the risk, don’t build it.

  • kastigar

    That Metra stop (look on Goggle maps to see this) is so close to O’Hare it would seem to be a lot cheaper and efficient to fold or integrate this into O’Hare’s terminals or the Blue Line.

  • Jeremy

    If a rail line as proposed could be profitable with no public money, wouldn’t developers be beating down the doors of city hall to have the opportunity to build it? Why does the city have to seek out proposals?

    As you point out, Toronto failed to live up to projections when first opened. As I remember, they projected 7,000 rides a day at $30 a ride. They were only receiving 2,000, until fares were reduced to $9. If that happened in Chicago (Toronto has a similar population), would the city be responsible for buying 5,000 tickets (at $30 each) every day?

  • Tooscrapps

    Excatly.

    On the flip side: While nothing about the parking meter deal was really on the up and up, it’s pretty suspect when a bunch of investors from Morgan Stanley magically want to hand you a billion dollars.

  • rwy

    The UP Express also didn’t have to compete with an existing train line. No way an airport express turns a profit in Chicago. I wish Rahm focused on a area that is in desperate need of public transit instead of this.

  • Cameron Puetz

    It wasn’t clear to me if the Forest Park option was using the UP-W corridor, or the Blue Line/Ike corridor. The UP-W corridor would seem Ideal. Adding a station in downtown Oak Park could help drive up ridership on the new service by offering an Oak Park-Loop express. It would also expand the area served by the new service. Residents on the west side could ride the Green Line west and transfer. Residents in the West Suburbs could ride the UP-W and transfer without needing to go all the way downtown. Adding one intermediate stop wouldn’t really detract from the train being an express.

  • Tooscrapps

    I suspect the Ike corridor is the option and either use existing ROW through River Forest, Melrose, Franklin, and Schiller Parks.

    Either way, Metra already has a line that basically does this….

  • Carter O’Brien

    It may not steal funding outright, but as long as public employees are spending time on the clock evaluating proposals there is a major opportunity cost to Chicagoans, those employees thus are not spending that time trying to improve connections from “spoke to spoke” (or however Ron Burke put it).

  • CIAC

    Yes, the problem with the area’s transit system is simply that transit administrators haven’t thought enough about it. Boy, imagine what could be solved if the administrators at CTA, RTA, or Metra headquarters had an extra 3 hours a day, for example, to think about how to improve things. It’s all about increasing the amouut of time to think about what to do. (sarcasm)

  • Frank Kotter

    Exactly my point. The current setup is as ineffective as the ‘solution’ nonsensical

  • Carter O’Brien

    It’s not simply the “administrators” who end up doing site surveys, soil and drainage tests, making architectural renderings, interfacing with the public, lobbying politicians for support, etc, etc.

    CTA wastes their time on projects like these that are a zero priority for residents, and meanwhile the Circle Line planning has gone nowhere.

    Look up the term “opportunity cost” and learn something. Or get a job, because you clearly don’t understand that the public sector has to do a lot with a little, which is part of CTAs biggest problem, it isn’t sustainable at the current funding levels.

  • CIAC

    The reason why the Circle Line hasn’t got off the ground is because there is no money for it (and/or it doesn’t have the public support that perhaps it should). It is not because there hasn’t been enough chance for people to conceive of and push for the idea. That was done years ago. Lots of people argued against it and there wasn’t funding available to get going. The O’Hare express proposal may be a bad idea. But it isn’t crowding out anything else. If you believe anybody would be discussing the Circle Line if only nobody had proposed a O’Hare express train than you obviously don’t have the slightest understanding of the forces that are at work.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You’re changing the subject and moving goalposts, which makes me wonder if you are the IAC from the Reader boards.

    The problem here is that the Mayor is focusing his energy on a colossal project, involving multiple city agencies, that in Chicago parlance nobody wanted and nobody sent.

    If the Mayor had the vision to see how multiple underserved neighborhoods would be served by a Circle Line and how it benefit pretty much all Chicagoans, and made it a priority, he would find a solution to the funding challenge. He’s very, very slick in the fundraising arena, and I don’t mean that as an insult.

    But he has instead chosen to focus his valuable time and energies on this project.

    I am quite confident I have at least a decent grasp of the forces at work. But feel free to actually explain them to me as you clearly are implying you have some inside knowledge the rest of us are not privy to.

  • CIAC

    “if the Mayor had the vision to see how multiple underserved neighborhoods would be served by a Circle Line and how it benefit pretty much all Chicagoans, and made it a priority, he would find a solution to the funding challenge.”

    I don’t think it’s quite that simple given that Emanuel has had a tough time finding funding for things that are priorities of his. But perhaps you are right. There’s no doubt that Emanuel hasn’t fought for that proposal very much. Perhaps that’s just realism. The Circle Line had been rejected by a large portion of the citizenry who used much the same arguments people are making about an O’Hare express line. They said it shouldn’t be a priority given the needs with existing service and argued (I think, incorrectly) that it would serve mostly more wealthy people. They also complained that it would cause gentrification. But regardless, that has nothing to do with the O’Hare express proposal. I just do not think that Emanuel or anyone in his administration would be spending one additional minute or uttering one additional word on the Circle Line if nobody had proposed an O’Hare express. This is just a non-sequitur. And he hasn’t spent all that much time dealing with it. My impression is that it has been mostly investors who have initiated the discussion about it. He has just said that the city wouldn’t stand in the way of a project that makes sense and may do some things to facilitate it.

  • Carter O’Brien

    It’s a non sequitor because you are misstating my point.

    I didn’t say the Circle Line was being ignored in favor of the O’Hare Express.

    I said that staff time and attention is a finite resource, so by definition, when you are dedicating staff time to one project, it cannot be utilized elsewhere. That’s the textbook definition of opportunity cost.

    And it’s an important point, because regardless of one’s opinion regarding where Emanuel and other City employees should be focusing their time (or exactly how much time has spent), the fact is that their time is not free.

    This is a common (and thinly disguised) brand of accounting trickery, where you don’t factor staff time into the costs of a project as it helps you prove that said project is more profitable than it really is.

    And I would have to disagree with you if you think Emanuel has somehow convinced the investor community to do this work pro bono. Do you have evidence supporting that? This kind of high level work is generally what the City pays consultants to do, and it strikes me as more likely than not they are very well paid indeed.

  • CIAC

    “‘s a non sequitor because you are misstating my point. I didn’t say the Circle Line was being ignored in favor of the O’Hare Express. I said that staff time and attention is a finite resource, so by definition, when you are dedicating staff time to one project, it cannot be utilized elsewhere. That’s the textbook definition of opportunity cost.”

    Right. Those last two sentences summarize what you originally said. And when I expressed skepticism that much would have been accomplished if this opportunity cost was used in a different direction you mentioned the Circle Line. Now you are saying, apparently, that because your argument contained a generalized principle it isn’t correct to apply anything specific to it? Huh? Even though you specifically mentioned this example?

    I think this discussion has past its usefulness. We are just talking in circles right now.

  • Carter O’Brien

    We’re here on a website dedicated to getting more people out of cars and on public transportation, bicycles, and walking. If you can’t connect the dots to see why the Circle Line is still topical, whereas an O’Hare Express is not, I would agree that you’ve outlasted your usefulness, as the former serves that purpose, whereas the latter does not.

    And welcome IAC, I knew it was you.

  • CIAC

    Huh? I didn’t say anything about the Circle Line not being topical to the subject of transportation is Chicago.

  • Carter O’Brien

    “The Circle Line had been rejected by a large portion of the citizenry.”

    That would have required the citizenry to have actually been surveyed. Your attempt to then conflate the Circle Line with this O’Hare express project (which we have also not been surveyed on) moves into the realm of delusion, so, the last word is yours as I am sure I can count on you keeping the Circle Line alive in whatever weird insider circles you move in.

  • matt mcclure

    Either build the CrossRail station at the new consolidated rental car facility and use the quietly disused Altenheim Subdivision along the Eisenhower Expressway or build a new, closer station in O’Hare using some of the hundreds of acres of soon-to-be abandoned rental car land.

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