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City Announces Competitors for O’Hare Express, Including Noted Transit Hater Elon Musk

A highly realistic rendering of Musk’s “electric pod” proposal. Image: Jonathan Roth

Today Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the request for qualifications responses for a concessionaire to plan, finance, build, and operate the O'Hare Express luxury transit service between downtown and O’Hare Airport. The project has the goal of reducing the transit time for the trip from the current 40 to 45 minutes via the Blue Line, which costs $2.50 to ride to O’Hare and $5 to take from the airport, to 20 minutes or less. Chicago aviation chief Ginger Evans has previously stated that an express ticket would likely cost between $25 and $35, and said the new service could include amenities like worktables and beverage service.

“Four visionary groups have stepped forward because they see what we see – a connected Chicago is a stronger Chicago,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Strengthening connections between the economic engines of downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport will build on Chicago’s legacy of innovation and pay dividends for generations to come.”

The Chicago Infrastructure Trust, on behalf of the city, received responses from the following respondents:

    • The Boring Company – tech guru Elon Musk’s excavation business
    • Oaktree Capital Management
    • O’Hare Express Train Partners (OHL Infrastructure, Kiewit, Amtrak)
    • O’Hare Xpress LLC (Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, JLC Infrastructure, Mott MacDonald and First Transit)

A news release from the city states, “The responses demonstrate strong private sector interest in the project to create a fast and convenient option for travel directly from [O’Hare] to downtown Chicago.” The infrastructure trust and the city will next begin to evaluate the four statements of qualifications. After that review is completed, qualified respondents will be allowed to continue in the next step of the “Hunger Games”-like competition, the issuance of a request for proposals for the qualified bidders.

The RFQ states that the O'Hare Express service should include a downtown station, an O'Hare station and one maintenance facility. The route may be above or below surface level. The RFQ document identifies three potential route alignments using the Canadian National-CSX railroad corridor, Metra’s North Central Service alignment, or the Blue Line / Kennedy Expressway / Metra Union Pacific-Northwest corridor. The goal is to offer trips at least every 15 minutes for most of the day – the Blue Line leaves the airport every 4 to 10 minutes all days. “Any proposal must also address how potential conflicts or impacts on existing transportation systems and the environment would be avoided or minimized,” the news release states.

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

The Active Transportation Alliance has stated that while privately funded high-speed service to O’Hare would be an upgrade to the Chicago area’s transportation network, it shouldn’t be our region’s top transit priority. “The RFQ says there would be no taxpayer funding for the project and the service would be paid for with project-specific revenues,” governmental relations director Kyle Whitehead wrote in a November blog post. “Still, it’s clear time and attention are being commanded by this project, and these resources could be directed to more efficient and equitable transit solutions.”

The Boring Company’s Elon Musk threw his hat in the ring for the project on Twitter around the same time. The entrepreneur claims that the company (which – no joke -- recently diversified into selling flamethrowers) has proprietary technology that will speed up the digging process 14-fold over conventional methods and cut costs by up to 90 percent, although he’s provided little evidence to back up this boast. He tweeted that he plans to transport travelers to the airport through a new tunnel via “electric pods.”

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 1.25.38 PM
Image: John Greenfield
Image: John Greenfield

However, it's more than a little ironic that Musk is competing to build the route, because he recently said that he despises public transit. “I think public transport is painful,” he said at an artificial intelligence conference in December, according to a report from Wired. “It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time… And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer.”

Well, let’s just hope that the other three competitors to build the O’Hare Express at least don’t think transit is “a pain in the a—," like Musk said it is.

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