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
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

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.

  • Amtrak, eh?

    Also, Kiewit is one of CTA’s main contractors.

  • Kevin Ngo

    I’ve never actually taken the Metra to O’Hare but it would seem like there would be a more affordable option without so much building. I saw an airport express proposal on Chicago Crossrail’s website. Couldn’t the tracks be electrified and then a specially branded premium airport express train can leave from Union Station? Can anyone think of anything that would not work in such a situation?

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • Jeremy

    Every candidate for governor should be asked what they think about the CrossRail proposal. If they feel it should be implemented, they should document how they would raise money to pay for it.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The best problem with taking Metra to the airport is that the O’Hare station is connected to the terminals. The station is out past the economy parking lots across Mannheim Rd from the car rental lots. Some track would need to be added to move the station closer to the terminals.

  • Cameron Puetz

    That has the potential to be one of the most interesting and beneficial proposals. Could Amtrak be considering integrating regional service and O’Hare express service to offer downstate and Michigan residents a multimodal alternative to regional jets?

  • planetshwoop

    This would be good and transformative.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Problem with that is that travelers end up at Union Station, not in the Loop with easy access to hotels and CTA lines.

    CUS to O’Hare service could start next month just by running a shuttle bus from the terminals down (usually uncongested) Mannheim Rd. to the MD-W Mannheim station. That line is owned by Metra, unlike the NCS route, so additional trains or even a private operation could easily be added.

  • Justin

    It makes me sick that they are actually going to do this. 20 years ago, sure, airport express sounded like a good idea. Today we know better. Every independent transit pro is against it.

    As though they can’t put the money or incentives into something that would provide much more utility to Chicagoans, like improved El service, connecting the El to the train terminals, or you know what else would be great: a pair of express tracks for the Ohare Blue Line which could significantly speed up trips to ohare while also speeding up commutes for tens of thousands of people. With all that extra passenger capacity, build some branches off the blue line to serve more neighborhoods.

    Only a few thousand people per weekday get on and off at the Ohare Blue Line stop. Consider that many of them are airport workers who won’t be able to afford taking this express train daily (even if they did live anywhere near the loop, which they don’t). Consider further that many of those people didn’t get on at the loop. Back when I lived in Lakeview I would get myself to the Belmont Blue stop by either bus or Uber and head to ORD from there. This express train would be worthless for that sort of application. The market for this express train is only a few hundred people per day. It WILL be an absolute failure, and whatever money or incentives they provide the developers would have been much better invested in infrastructure that would provide much greater benefit to Chicagoans.

  • Eric

    Please correct me if I’m wrong but the 2016 CTA Ridership report shows 11,419 riders per weekday boarding at O’hare. 9,391 on Saturday and 10,144 on Sunday.

  • Kevin Ngo

    That is true with Union Station. A direct rail link to Union and Ogilvie is missing. Anyone else want a Clinton or Canal Street Subway?

  • Justin

    Yes, now what percent of that are taking the blue line all the way to the loop?

    Now, of that group, what percent are only traveling to the loop to connect onto another El line to a final destination on the north or south side, and only are taking the El because they are extremely price sensitive and don’t want to pay for an uber even though it would save them 40 minutes or more? Those people won’t be taking the express train.

    Now, of the few remaining people, how many people are traveling in a group of 2 or more such that an uber will be cheaper than express train tickets, at a time outside of rush hour such that driving will be just as fast as the express train? Those people might not opt for the express train either.

    I stand by my estimate of a potential full fare ridership in only the hundreds per day.

  • Steve

    “travelers end up at Union Station, not in the Loop with easy access to hotels and CTA lines.”

    It is interesting to note that the Heathrow Express terminates at London Paddington Station, which is nowhere near Westminster, the City, SoHo, or other major tourist areas.

  • Dennis McClendon

    But Paddington has excellent transit connections via four different Underground lines.

  • Steve

    Right, but CUS is within easy access to the Loop if that is your destination and now hotels have moved into the Financial District as well. Additionally, all CTA lines are within 3 to 7 blocks of CUS. I used to work at 300 S. Riverside across from CUS on Jackson and never felt too far away from the Loop or the CTA. The “superstation” at Washington and State would certainly have been the best terminus for an O’Hare Express train.

  • matt mcclure

    I agree with John that the CrossRail proposal of incorporating the station into the forthcoming consolidated parking facility is most logical, especially with the MATRA system extended east of Mannheim. That said, the fastest route would be south past the MD-W line to the moribund Altenheim Subdivision of the Chicago and Baltimore Chicago Terminal. Its line adjacent to the Eisenhower expressway is bereft of traffic and there are no road nor rail crossings for miles and miles. Complete the job with an elevated or underground connection into the Loop with stops in the west loop, loop center and near Michigan Avenue.

  • matt mcclure

    The fastest route would be south past the MD-W line to the moribund Altenheim Subdivision of the Chicago and Baltimore Chicago Terminal. Its line adjacent to the Eisenhower expressway is bereft of traffic and there are no road nor rail crossings for miles and miles. Complete the job with an elevated or underground connection into the Loop with stops in the west loop, loop center and near Michigan Avenue. The Milwaukee is only okay, but its line is choked with both freight and two commuter lines plus the 90 turn at Pacific Junction (Tower A-5) is a speed killer. And south of this point there is Amtrak plus the MD-N adding to the traffic as well as the Western Avenue crossing from 100 years ago of the UP-W line. The Altenheim Subdivision has the space, the absence of crossings, and is a direct feed into downtown save the last two miles.