Selection of Finalists for O’Hare Express Takes Us a Step Closer to a Muskian Boondoggle

Elon Musk says he can dig a tunnel to O’Hare and transport air travelers via "electric pods." Illustration: Jonathan Roth
Elon Musk says he can dig a tunnel to O’Hare and transport air travelers via "electric pods." Illustration: Jonathan Roth

As several experts, advocates, and observers have noted, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s grand plan for luxury express transit service to O’Hare could be a costly distraction from Chicago’s more pressing transportation priorities.

In a nutshell, the express would be redundant to the existing Blue Line service, which could be made more attractive to visitors and business travelers via some relatively inexpensive upgrades. Since the express would run less frequently that the ‘L’, and possibly terminate in the West Loop rather than having several stops in the Loop proper, it might not offer a significant reduction in total travel time. That, along with projected $25-plus ticket prices, could make it hard to generate sufficient ridership.

And while the city has promised that no taxpayer money would be used for constructing the new route, it has acknowledged that public funds will probably be used to build the stations. It’s also likely that if the service isn’t financially sustainable, residents could be on the hook for covering the revenue shortfall. Regardless, the project is already diverting city planning resources from projects that would actually improve transit access for ordinary Chicagoans, such as strategies to speed up buses or create crosstown rapid transit.

The fact that tech guru Elon Musk is vying to build the O’Hare route with his excavation enterprise The Boring Company raises further questions about the viability of the initiative. Musk, who is in the habit of proposing projects using technology that doesn’t exist yet, and has stated that public transit “sucks,” has made the dubious claim that he has technology that can speed up the process of digging a tunnel 14-fold over conventional methods and cut costs by up to 90 percent, although he’s provided little evidence to back up this boast. Musk has stated that he will dig a tunnel from O’Hare to the Loop to whisk travelers to the airport via so-called “electric sled” technology.

The likelihood of Chicago entering into a contract with Musk to build the express became that much more real today as the city announced that the Boring Company is one of two finalists in the request for proposals process for the project to plan, build, finance, and operate the service. The Boring Company and O’Hare Xpress LLC will be eligible to respond to the RFP, which will be issued on Friday by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, with responses to the RFP due on May 18.

The Musk-free competitor is a consortium that includes Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, JLC Infrastructure, Mott MacDonald and First Transit. The Chicago Tribune reported that Meridiam is a global investor based in Paris, while JLC is an infrastructure fund that was founded by basketball legend Magic Johnson JLC and Jim Reynolds, head of the investment firm Loop Capital Markets. Antarctica is a New York-based investment firm, and UK-based civil engineering company Mott MacDonald designed a terminal for Heathrow Airport in London.

“Strengthening connections between Chicago’s economic engines will drive our economy into the future, build on the city’s legacy of innovation and pay dividends for generations to come,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Today, we have two teams that have the ability to get the job done and create an express connection between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport without a taxpayer subsidy.”

“Of the submissions received, these two teams represent the best potential partners to deliver this express service, which will be a key part of Chicago’s continued economic growth,” Chicago treasurer and infrastructure trust chair Kurt Summers stated. A total of four companies submitted proposals.

The city’s announcement reiterated the claim that taxpayers won’t be responsible for paying the O’Hare Express, but instead all funding will come from fares, advertising, and other revenue sources, and the project will be financed entirely by the developer. However, ex-mayor Richard M. Daley previously blew some $250 million building the shell of a “superstation” for the O’Hare Express under the Loop’s Block 37, which was never used. With Musk, who has generated plenty of hype but relatively few results when it comes to mass transit projects, in the finals, it’s even more likely that additional money will be wasted on this misguided dream.

  • ardecila

    >”the project is already diverting city planning resources from projects that would actually improve transit access for ordinary Chicagoans”

    What significant city resources are going into this? The Chicago Infrastructure Trust is working with some people in the Departments of Law and Procurement to run an RFP process. Generally, using in-house staff is an very minor cost. The real money comes when outside consultants and engineers are hired, but in this case the winning bidder will have to pay for that.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    For example, the $2 million contract that the city awarded to the engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff to study the route is nothing to sneeze at.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Generally, using in-house staff is simply a smoke and mirrors approach to disguising the true cost of a project.

    Let’s see the breakout of how much the time (including benefits, pensions, etc) actually cost, as well as the indirect expenses related to managing the 3rd party contracts. Oh, you say this isn’t a big deal? You’ll need to square that with the world’s biggest boondoggle aka the parking meter privatization, which featured our well paid City staff members singing a chorus of “we didn’t have time to read and discuss the details.”

    “Generally, using in-house staff is an very minor cost.”

  • simple

    That’s like you spending $100 and some of your time to assess a $50,000 improvement to your home that someone else has offered to pay for. That doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me.

  • rohmen

    I think this project is a waste period, but I always find it interesting that people treat Musk like he’s a charlatan.

    Sure, he may be over-promising here, and like any entrepreneur he’s had successes and failures (though some of his “failures” are more of a mixed bag than people admit). However, he has largely delivered on his promises on the Space X programs that many doubted were possible (the reuse of rockets could become a serious game changer on costs of space delivery). It’s not like he has never developed a program from the ground up to positive effect before.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Musk is a distraction. People love or hate him, but once his name comes up the specifics of the whatever project was being discussed gets lost in the Musk love or hate.

  • Combin8tion

    Totally agree with you @disqus_7zc1yRDq19:disqus. But you won’t find support of that position on this blog where new, ground-breaking opportunities in transit are generally sneered at in favor of century old technology in the form of the elevated (which barely meets today’s commuting needs no matter what upgrades are proposed) and bicycles.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Please provide examples of us sneering at ground-breaking transportation technology that actually exists.

  • Combin8tion

    Do a search on “driverless cars” and you’ll see where you and other bloggers within Streetsblog sneer at ground-breaking transportation technology @johnaustingreenfield:disqus.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    You’re arguing that we were wrong to urge caution in implementing driverless car technology?

  • Combin8tion

    @johnaustingreenfield:disqus you’re not urging caution, you’re promoting fear and a one-sided viewpoint. Let’s take a look at recent headlines shall we:

    “Tesla’s Vision for the Future of Autonomous Cars Should Scare Us” – seems to continue the anti-Elon Musk feelings promoted in this blog and the usage of scare as hyperbole.

    “Miami’s Future Should Be Transit and Walking, But the Mayor’s Focused on Robot Cars” – the use of robot as a pejorative to confuse and scare people.

    “How Can We Prevent Driverless Cars From Making Cities More Car-Dependent?” – again using a pejorative in the word prevent. Let’s prevent driverless cars – true the meaning is less than that but your readers are not going to notice the difference.

    Look, new technology has a place in transportation. Be it a sled-like device in a tunnel to O’Hare, driverless vehicles, Maglev trains being used in China and Japan or smart traffic signals to give buses priority. But your blog posts don’t treat each of them equally – you promote a lop-sided view of transportation, imho. There’s little harm in Chicago finding a new way to transport people to the big airport and the risk seems to be carried by the private entities. Yes, Chicago has a bad history on fair-dealing but should that history prevent taking a bold step forward?

  • BlueFairlane

    My problem with Musk is mostly that he way oversells what he’s done and is doing, and the Muskovite Faithful have decided he’s some sort of techno god who can pull Star Trek technology fully formed from his skull. They treat any who question the words of the Great Elon as heretics who must be vociferously denounced.

    Musk is a snake oil salesman, only he’s disrupted snake oil by digitizing it and only accepting payment in Bitcoin run through Paypal. But really, most of his “successes” have been far more modest than advertised, and are simply built on technology that’s been around for decades. NASA used reusable rockets throughout the space shuttle program. Musk simply added the fun marketing twist of having them land all pretty on a barge instead of parachuting into seawater … which, sure, avoids the corrosion issue, but adds a lot to fuel consumption. Meanwhile, he hasn’t launched the things often enough yet to prove they have any more lasting power than the old shuttle solid rocket boosters. Will they really hold up under the pounding they take over multiple flights? How many flights is he reasonably going to get out of one of these rockets? I think so far, he’s managed to use one of the rockets twice. Which, yeah, great. But is twice really all that better than once? Can you depend on these things for 5 or 10 launches?

    Will Musk accomplish some beneficial things with SpaceX? Sure. Will he revolutionize the space game as a whole? Doubt it.

  • rohmen

    I get he over sells/over promises, but I guess I just have problems lumping him in with a true snake oil salesman.

    I mean Juicero, Theranos, etc. are true phantom or s**t products that simply bilked money out of investors. Tesla, on the other hand, may never turn a profit unless the Model 3 production issues get worked out (and his current investors may have a point that he’s not being honest about that with them), BUT they’re a hell of a car by most measures, and worth the money he charges for them.

    I’m just often amazed how polarizing he is, as his companies are nowhere near the most compelling examples of the tech bubble ridiculous in Silicone Valley.

  • matt mcclure

    Why must this service be luxury? Efficient, fast, and amenity-filled (wifi, etc) makes more sense. Could add a dedicated track without local stops to the Blue Line (not luxurious) or build the CrossRail station at the new consolidated rental car facility and use the quietly disused Altenheim Subdivision along the Eisenhower Expressway. Another, related option is to build a new, closer station in O’Hare using some of the hundreds of acres of soon-to-be abandoned rental car land. Both could utilize existing traincars from Siemens and other competitors to bring travelers and commuters alike to downtown quickly.