Why CMAP Was Wise to Keep the O’Hare Express Off Its Priority Projects List

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

Crain’s columnist Joe Cahill has been a tireless cheerleader for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s dream of luxury express service to O’Hare. Back in February 2017 Cahill first made the argument that Chicago won’t be able to maintain its status as a world-class city unless it offers business travelers and well-heeled visitors a seamless connection from the airport to the Loop. At the time he cited Toronto’s Union Pearson Express, with its $20 U.S. ticket price, as a North American best practice. In reality, that line’s ridership was dismal until the fare was cut to $9 U.S. shortly after Cahill’s op-ed was published.

On Friday Cahill voiced his disappointment with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, whose approval is required for federal funding of local transportation projects, for leaving the O’Hare Express off its proposed list of priority projects, released on April 9. The CMAP board will likely vote to approve the projects in October.

Joe Cahill
Joe Cahill

“Chicago offers visitors a choice between an ‘L’ ride that might make the trip in 40 minutes on a good day and a cab ride of an hour or more,” Cahill writes. “That won’t cut it in the 21st century, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel knows it. That’s why he has proposed a privately financed express train that would carry passengers between the Loop and O’Hare in 20 minutes.”

Urban planner Daniel Kay Hertz has previously pointed out the issues with this logic. The current Blue Line renovation project could shave up to five minutes off the trip from O’Hare to the Loop. Moreover, the Blue Line runs every four to ten minutes, while the airport express would likely run at 15-minute intervals and drop passengers off in the West Loop, farther from Michigan Avenue hotels, without the flexibility of getting off the train at several different stations in the Loop proper. As such the express service, which would likely cost at least five times as much to ride as the Blue Line trip from the airport, wouldn’t necessarily provide a net timesavings.

On top of these issues there’s the opportunity cost of devoting so much civic attention to creating a flashy transit service for elites. As the Active Transportation Alliance and UIC faculty members Kate Lowe and Janet Smith have pointed out, the O’Hare Express is already diverting planning resources from projects that would actually improve transit access for ordinary Chicagoans, such as the south Red Line extension, and strategies to speed up buses or create crosstown rapid transit.

But Cahill is bummed that CMAP didn’t include the express on its priority list because this could make it harder for the initiative to win federal grants or go through federal safety approval processes. However, he notes that the agency may add the project to the list once more details are nailed down, such as the primary funding source. The mayor has promised that no taxpayer money will be spent on building and operating service, although aviation chief Ginger Evans has acknowledged that public funds probably will be used to construct the stations.

Cahill acknowledges that critics question whether the express could turn a profit for private investors. He even notes the failure of the high-priced Toronto rail service, but says he has faith that, unlike in that city, “demand will be strong in Chicago at a price that will generate acceptable returns.” However, he provides little evidence why things would be any different here than in The Six.

“But there’s no need to speculate,” Cahill assures us. “The best test of financial viability and demand will be the willingness of private companies to shoulder the risk.”

So if, say, tech mogul and O’Hare Express finalist Elon Musk is chosen by the city to move forward with his highly realistic proposal to dig a new tunnel to the airport and whisk passengers there via so-called “electric sled” technology, and he’s willing to do so, that’s proof that the project will turn a profit?

And in the very, very unlikely scenario that expensive unforeseen complications arise during the digging of that 18-mile tunnel, or that, once the service launches, ridership projections turn out to be overly optimistic, as they were in Toronto, taxpayers won’t be on the hook to make up the shortfall?

It would be great to see some evidence of that.

  • Carter O’Brien

    All the logic in the world regarding the time savings isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans. This isn’t about time, this is about the well heeled not wanting to take the same L train as Chicago’s riff-raff (which can likely be defined as those making less than $250k a year).

    And what is up with that design? Good god, that looks like a guard tower in some kind of futuristic prison.

  • Tooscrapps

    The Great Eye of Sauron.

  • planetshwoop

    Didn’t we have the same discussion about Millennium Park — it was too expensive, it devoted resources from the neighborhoods, etc. And 15(ish) years later, the answer seems more obvious.

    We talk a lot about the example of Toronto, but what about the example of London? I don’t think it’s failing, and indeed hauling a giant massive suitcase onto a simple train is a lot better than lugging it on the Tube.

    I think the option isn’t about whether it should happen or not, but how to make it benefit the broader community than *just* the airport. Can it be part of a high-speed rail network? Can it have other destinations (Schaumburg?) besides just the airport? I feel like trying to shape it more than opposite it, and separately fight for more transit dollars for needed improvements.

    (Also, Elon Musk’s company should totally be discarded until it’s built a working prototype, say, from his garage to the mailbox.)

  • Cameron Puetz
  • Cameron Puetz

    There are a lot of ways this project could morph to benefit the community. Instead of a one stop express, make it a limited stop express that gives Jefferson Park and Logan Square commuters a fast ride downtown and takes some pressure off of the overcrowded Blue Line. Extend it to hit job centers like Elk Grove Village and Shamburg. Run it west of the Blue Line using the MD-N right of way and give Hermosa and Humboldt Park transit access.

  • Jeremy

    I don’t know about that. I have taken the Blue Line to O’Hare. The constant starting and stopping is annoying. There also isn’t any room for luggage as the train gets crowded. I think the express train is a bad idea, primarily because the “well heeled” who don’t want to ride the L aren’t going to ride the express train either. They are still going to take a taxi to get door to door service.

  • Jeremy

    What you are proposing (CrossRail Chicago as advocated by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association) isn’t what the mayor is proposing. He is only talking about an express train route built from scratch between O’Hare and one unspecified station downtown.

    Yes, let’s change the discussion to make the possible network more robust. I have contacted my alderman, state representative, state senator, and U.S. representative to do that.


    BTW, London has a population three times the size of Chicago.

  • Carter O’Brien

    So that’s an extra nuance that isn’t typically brought up. There’s a difference between business travelers who are likely traveling fairly light and tourists with loads of luggage.

    The former expense everything to the employer anyway, so unless the train is ridiculously more efficient (and this includes time not just on the train, but getting to the train and then to your terminal), they are likely to stick with cabs. You get it right at the door of your hotel, and within seconds you can be on your laptop working. Tourists with more luggage and theoretically moving at a more relaxed pace, maybe, I really have no idea.

    I still see no reason why they can’t retrofit/ultimately phase in Blue Line cars with luggage racks, be they overhead or something different. Based on the outdated event ads and vacant ad space I typically see on the Blue Line, it’s not like CTA is making a mint on that revenue.

  • Carter O’Brien

    While these are good points, what I find the most infuriating about this process is how glaringly top-down the entire process has been. It’s like, let’s build this train nobody asked for (and at least to date, nobody has sent) and maybe as part of that throw a few bones to the communities at large who are poorly served by CTA. This is not holistic transportation planning by definition.

  • Ben

    This is just not true. The goal of this project is to take share from taxis and rideshare customers, not from the Blue Line. There are many issues in Chicago regarding segregation but this is not one of them.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Yeah, right. And the goal of luxury TOD housing is to bring down rents for poor immigrants getting evicted from their homes and neighborhoods.

  • Ben

    I’m trying to tell you here that I totally agree that there is much hypocrisy with projects like this generally. But truly, in the case of Express service to ORD, it is REALLY about taking the taxi and rideshare customers. That’s why private businesses are interested. If it was just taking the “elite” that deal with the Blue Line, it wouldn’t come anywhere close to being feasible. The horrible elitists you refer to are already taking taxis and Uber/Lyft. Adding an Express train to steal that share doesn’t make it the city’s fault.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You misunderstand – I’m not calling them horrible elitists, nor am I claiming this project isn’t hoping to steal business from taxis and rideshare (which we tax heavily btw, so there’s some trade offs there).

    I’m saying that this is a plan that wasn’t well thought through when originally envisioned some 20 years ago, and it remains poorly thought through. People didn’t envision stealing ride share business before ride share even existed. This is the kind of giant shiny infrastructure project that mayors love. And I’ll give Rahm his credit where it’s due, he’s put a lot of resources into the CTA. But there’s just no way to defend this while the parts of the city furthest out from the CBD are choking in traffic fumes. Priorities.


  • Jeremy

    Kind of ironic: now that more hotels are built/rehabbed in neighborhoods, the city is pushing for an airport express train to downtown.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Expense accounts aren’t the free wheeling source of funds that people make them out to be. Plenty of business travelers ride the Blue Line. An instant improvement would be putting some cars with wider aisles, like the 5000 series on the the Blue Line.

  • Carter O’Brien

    A big fat +1 on that!

  • Ben

    Well that definitely is more helpful. All I can respond to is what you post. And you posted “This isn’t about time, this is about the well heeled not wanting to take the same L train as Chicago’s riff-raff.” So that’s what I was responding to.

    I agree it should be thought out better. For example, I think it would be a perfect opportunity to finally connect the commuter and national rail stations with N. Michigan Avenue area. I believe they’re considering multiple stations in the plan. That could even be an entirely additional revenue stream. Basically an S shuttle (a la NY) from Union/Ogilvie to N Mich Ave. You’d be making money off of daily commuting passengers and the ORD express run as well.

    I will say though that, at some point, things just need to be started if you ever want to get them done. Rahm is just trying to get people talking about it. Otherwise nothing ever happens. Once it becomes more serious, then the details can be explored.

  • Ben

    That’s not in place of hotels downtown. They’re exploding in both areas — which I’m very happy about. I wish more visitors would get out to the neighborhoods instead of just staying downtown.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You are correct about business travelers using the Blue Line – likely even many who do have expense accounts – which really just adds another reason why the O’Hare Express line isn’t necessary.

    But the people spoke, and they do not want wider aisles and sideways facing seats:


    They’re dysfunctional from a user standpoint – tons of varying sizes of legs and feet protruding into that center space cancels out the extra capacity, while also making it difficult to move through a crowded car. I routinely see seats not used, because they sized them wrong. As for the safety/comfort issue, getting jerked side to side is much worse than being able to brace yourself with a seat in front of you.

    From the article:

    “The most common complaints from riders about the center-facing seats are that seated passengers are crammed shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh while also being eye-level to the crotches and buttocks of standing passengers; that in crowded conditions, standing passengers tend to accidentally step on the feet of those seated; and that views out the windows are blocked by bodies.

    CTA research, based on observations aboard trains, also showed that the legs of passengers seated in the center-facing seats disrupt passenger flow, yet some customers think the center-facing seats are safer because there is no
    one standing behind them.”

  • planetshwoop

    The population of London vs Chicago is less of an issue–what’s more likely to drive traffic is the number of people coming in and out of the airport. Which is pretty similar between Heathrow and O’Hare:

  • planetshwoop

    Agree. It’s more economic development than transit planning, which is probably why it’s different.

  • Jeremy

    If someone flies into O’Hare from Omaha on one airline, then flies to New York on another airline, they are counted as two passengers, but never leave the airport.

    I have no idea the percentage of passengers that applies to, and Heathrow probably has a large amount, also.

  • Jeremy

    There is a proposal out there for connecting Union-Ogilvie-Merchandise Mart-Navy Pier using Carroll Avenue. Projected cost is $750 million.



  • Carter O’Brien

    And this is precisely my issue. Rahm should be trying to get people talking about the damn Circle Line. Everybody agreed we need this, it just ran into a funding roadblock so now it lies dormant.

    I stand by my initial comment regarding what’s driving this OHare Express, in that it is not the time
    savings, it’s the overall experience. The well heeled do not want to take the CTA with the general public. Hell, most of the general people don’t, either. This is why Chicagoans still primarily get around as single occupants in cars. It’s why people love sky boxes at Soldier Field and VIP tents at Lollapalooza. But those are relatively one off events, the challenge with this project is it needs to appeal to both people willing to plunk down considerable coin for it, while also being affordable enough to have the ridership to keep it solvent. That is a tough balance to strike.

  • Ben

    Everyone loves to make fun of urban rail public transportation. So I get your point. But you keep walking back what you originally said it just being about the “people.” Now you’re saying it’s the “overall experience” which I COMPLETELY agree with. That is the biggest problem. 40 minutes doesn’t sound that bad but there’s something about the crowdedness, the constant stopping and starting, the cleanliness and the noise that makes it an overall experience many people wish to avoid. If you can get downtown in 20 minutes in a comfortable environment with wifi and room for your bags it would be a strong sell. That’s why people take it in London and other major world cities. Plus it’s cheaper than a cab or Uber.

    I can give you one example: Me. I live in River North. When traffic is 30 minutes or less I take an Uber which now costs around $35. If it’s more than 30 minutes I Uber to the Blue Line at Grand. I would probably use the Express service every time if it was, say, $18 or so. And I think a lot of people on the Near North side would as well. Live in Lincoln Park? Take 10 minute ride on Red Line and 20 minutes on the Express for $20.

    Uber and Lyft continue to increase prices to airports and it’s getting to the point where it’s not worth it anymore.

  • Ben

    Using Carroll has been discussed for probably 20 years but no one seems to actually get it rolling. Of all the public transit projects in Chicago this would be the most successful. There are likely over a million trips each day just between North Mich and Loop/Union/Ogilvie.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Come on, man. These are comment boards on the internet, not a thesis defense. I think you’re confusing my initial intent, which was to draw a sharp contrast between the populist sales pitch for this express train, as opposed to the sales pitch of it as a luxury (ie, exclusionary) service. I am sure Rahm & whomever is bidding on this will want as many users as possible – but how it’s being advertised and promoted speaks volumes.

    For we unwashed masses who are the allegedly sub-prime daily users of the Blue Line, this is all just a bottle of snake oil, because it does not jive with our generally decent experience riding the train. I live less than a 5m walk from the Blue Line, it’s literally why I moved where I did. There’s nothing wrong with the Blue Line. Taking it from downtown to O’Hare is a freaking dream – you don’t even have to step outside for god’s sake! If anything, let’s connect the Brown Line to the Blue Line at Jefferson Park. That also starts to get us closer to a Circle Line in practical terms.

  • Ben

    I love the El and I use it often. I wish more people were like that.

    Also agree with the Brown to Jeff Park. It’s just a disaster getting to the Blue Line if you live anywhere north.

  • Ben

    Connecting passengers at O’Hare make up roughly 50%.

  • Jeremy

    Regarding taking the Red Line to the express: it depends where the downtown station is. If the express goes to Union Station (to connect with Amtrak and some Metra lines), that isn’t close enough to the Red Line. Plus, many people may not live walking distance (when dragging luggage) to the red line.

    A $15 taxi ride from my place in LP to Union, plus a $25 (bottom point in the proposed range) train ride totals $40. I will probably just take the taxi the entire way to O’Hare.

  • CIAC

    “The well heeled do not want to take the CTA with the general public. Hell, most of the general people don’t, either. This is why Chicagoans still primarily get around as single occupants in cars.”

    I think most people drive cars rather than use public transit if and when they are more convenient. It has nothing to do with “commuting with the general public”.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Those concepts are anything but mutually exclusive. What makes a bus less convenient than driving? Well, it stops where you don’t need it to. That takes time.


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