A Few Reasons Why Letting Elon Musk Build the O’Hare Express Is Still a Bad Idea

Rendering of one of the "electric skate" stations. Image: The Boring Company
Rendering of one of the "electric skate" stations. Image: The Boring Company

Last week the city of Chicago announced that it had tapped tech guru Elon Musk and his excavation firm the Boring Company to build the express transit route between downtown’s Block 37 and O’Hare Airport. Musk claims he can whisk travelers to and from the airport in a mere 12 minutes, compared to the current 40-45 minutes for the Blue Line, by digging twin tunnels and shooting people through them at 125-150 mph in 8-16-person cars using “electric skate” technology.

Musk also says he can complete the project for $1 billion, compared to, say, the $2.3 billion the city has budgeted for the south Red Line extension, thanks to his proprietary digging method. He claims he will run the cars as frequently as every 30 seconds (the Blue Line runs every four to ten minutes), and the city estimates that tickets will cost $20-25 dollars, compared to $5 from the airport and $2.50 to it via the ‘L’. The city says no taxpayer funds will be used for the project.

We’ll have more analysis of the issue on Streetsblog Chicago in the near future but for starters, here are some of the arguments why this appears to be an unfortunate development for Chicago transit.

The project could be a financial trainwreck for the city.  Toronto’s Union Pearson Express offers a cautionary tale for Chicago. That line’s ridership was dismal until the fare was cut from $20 to $9 U.S., requiring a heavy public subsidy. And what happens if tunneling doesn’t wind up being as cheap as Musk projects (he’s provided little evidence that he can actually dig significantly cheaper or faster than conventional methods) and he runs out of money? While the city of Chicago assures us that “the contract will include protections to ensure taxpayers will be protected against any costs incurred by an incomplete project,” several aldermen, plus commentators like my Chicago Reader colleague Ben Joravsky, have expressed skepticism.

The O’Hare express won’t address regional transit needs. While the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has supported the idea of an airport express, they’ve advocated for it to be part of a larger project called CrossRail, which would create a direct route from O’Hare to the southeast side via a new South Loop rail connection, which could be the beginnings of a regional high-speed network. In contrast, MWHSRA recently noted, Musk’s plan will simply transport travelers between the airport and downtown – only 10 percent of O’Hare travelers are making that trip — and the route won’t be compatible with any existing transit systems.

Few Chicagoans are asking for this. In a recent blog post, the Active Transportation Alliance pointed out that while there has been strong support from Chicago residents and community groups for improving neighborhood transportation access through strategies like the Red Line extension and converting the Metra Electric District line to rapid transit, the O’Hare Express will largely benefit elites. They note that improving capacity, speed, and reliability on the Blue Line instead would benefit people from all over the city, as well as air travelers.

Small pods are a highly inefficient way to transport people. Urban planner Daniel Kay Hertz, who has been warning Chicago about the folly of the O’Hare Express project for years, crunched the numbers on this subject:

Elon Musk hates public transit. Just a reminder, here’s what he said at a conference last December. “I think public transport is painful. 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?”

  • LazyReader

    Given that nothing Elon musk does is even remotely successful without government subsidies…The fact is any transportation technology that requires new infrastructure to be
    built is doomed to fail because it will be unable to compete against
    technologies using existing infrastructure. Another thing is that Speed
    isn’t always paramount. Convenience or price are more important even if
    the ride takes longer. Shuttles can take you and your luggage, so
    can ride hails, cabs and essentially a friend with a pickup and they can
    pick you up from Home. Versus this system which requires you to show up at
    Block 37. Spending a billion dollars on a single point passenger
    hauler. Going from downtown to the Airport, but not everyone lives in the downtown area; not everyone works in downtown, they account for just a small percentage of all the jobs & all the residences. Anyone who wants to go to O’Hare using this system has to get to Block
    37 first FROM WHEREEVER they might be in Chicago. Be it Logan Square,
    Bucktown, Lincoln Park, Montclare, Little
    Italy, Lawndale, Willowbrook. Why go all the way to Block 37
    just to get to O’Hare when you can just go to O’Hare from wherever you
    are now? Especially if your place of residence is closer to O’Hare than
    Block 37. Musk says it’s fast; fast is meaningless since most plane trips are planned in advance. Musk is
    welcome to spend his own or other private investors’ money chasing this initiative and hopefully it succeeds. But the truth is that, whether it is high-speed rail,
    maglev, or the hyperloop, or some elevated or underground people mover;
    Station to station transportation technology that requires new
    infrastructure cant compete with personal door to door convenience let alone go any other destination in between.

  • CIAC

    “While the city of Chicago assures us that “the contract will include protections to ensure taxpayers will be incurred by an incomplete project,” several aldermen, plus commentators like my Chicago Reader colleague Ben Joravsky, have expressed skepticism.”

    My God! Ben Joravsky expressed skepticism about something Emanuel has said! How did that happen? Oh my goodness, there’s got to be a lot of merit for this criticism if Joravsky is among those expressing it. It’s much like when Rush Limbaugh expressed skepticism about something Barack Obama said. (sarcasm)

    “The project could be a financial trainwreck for the city. Toronto’s Union Pearson Express offers a cautionary tale for Chicago. That line’s ridership was dismal until the fare was cut from $20 to $9 U.S., requiring a heavy public subsidy.”

    ” MWHSRA recently noted, Musk’s plan will simply transport travelers between the airport and downtown – only 10 percent of O’Hare travelers are making that trip — and the route won’t be compatible with any existing transit systems.”

    I think that if one really thinks this thing to its natural conclusion, connects all the dots and looks at all possible scenarios that could occur it really has to be the case that there’s no downside for the city and quite likely a lot of upside, though its not clear exactly what that will be. There are three things that can occur. One is that this will end up never getting built. That won’t be good but the only person who would be hurt by that is Elon Musk. Another possibility is that it will be built and be very successful, as Musk believes it will be. If sixteen people every couple of minutes want to use this thing and pay $20 to $25 to go to O’Hare that can only help Chicago’s economy. It means that quite a lot of people are coming to the city in this tube and a major portion no doubt wouldn’t otherwise be doing so. The third possibility is that the tunnel is built and the ridership numbers are much weaker than predicted and Elon Musk ends up not being able to make up for his investment. But if that happens, the infrastructure would still exist. There has been this new method of transportation to the O’Hare area that has been built, even if stupidly so, and is not going away. If Musk can’t attract the amount of passengers needed for him to recoup his investment and to operate the thing at its full capacity there would be every incentive for him to find ways to at least get as many passengers as he can. This would necessitate trying to attract more than simply those wanting to go to the airport. He’d partner with the city and the area’s transit systems (or perhaps just sell the tube to them) so that the new line can easily connect with other transit options near its O’Hare station. So this will be a new train line that has gotten built, without public money, that will now be useful not just for people going to the airport but also for people with jobs on the far northwest side of the city and the near northwest suburbs in addition to residents of those areas who want to commute to Chicago. If he can’t attract anything close to 16 passengers every few minutes at $20 to $25 an hour at most times (which I suspect will be the case) he’d have to lower the price. Given that it is automated and requires no operational labor it probably could be operated pretty cheaply and thus priced much lower. Once the infrastructure in this is there I don’t see how the net effect wouldn’t be greatly positive for the area’s transportation infrastructure.

  • We desperately need ghost tunnels to accompany the ghost station Block 37.

    When the Musk capital runs out with partial tunneling …

  • Carter O’Brien

    This assumption is exactly what so many of us are doubting. Are there any actual studies that support this theory? Why aren’t we hearing droves of business people going on the record to express this sentiment?

    “It means that quite a lot of people are coming to the city in this tube and a major portion no doubt wouldn’t otherwise be doing so.”

  • BlueFairlane

    … “the contract will include protections to ensure taxpayers will be incurred by an incomplete project,”…

    Did you or somebody else drop a word in that sentence? Because while I think the sentence as written is true, it kind of says the exact opposite of what these people want us to think. Reminds me of a plaque on a new foot bridge in a county park in my old homeland that said, “May this bridge impede the dreams of those who cross …”

    On top of the fact that the city neither needs nor wants this project, my biggest problems are technical. Elon Musk has never actually dug a hole, and the bright idea behind his great innovation seems to be, “Let’s make the hole narrower.” He seems to think he’s going to disrupt geology, and the absurd statement on his Boring website FAQs about how tunnels behave in earthquakes doesn’t reassure me on this front. He thus far has said nothing about the specific nature of the stuff he’s going to have to drill through here and how that will affect his robot drilling machine. While he’ll likely hit some dolomitic limestone at points along his probable path at the depth he’ll probably aim for (which is good), he’ll mostly be boring through a lot of unconsolidated glacial till and lake bottom sediment with a huge potential to collapse right on top of him. That’s going to slow him down a lot more than he thinks, and while I suspect he’s going to try to keep the project’s ongoing progress secret, I strongly believe at some point we’ll hear about an endless series of accidents and engineering delays that will increase whatever timeline he gives us by a factor of 10. Musk loves to oversell his timelines–don’t forget, he promised he’d be sending a couple of rich people on a trip around the Moon right about now–but they never come anywhere close to what he predicts. We’ll be hearing about this thing for the next ten years … assuming he doesn’t go bankrupt in the mean time and leave us with a couple of half-drilled, collapsing tubes underlying an ever-increasing number of sinkholes.

    Which brings up my other concern … I know it’s the Trump era, and we’re supposed to think the EPA isn’t a thing any more, but nobody’s mentioned any kind of environmental study. What’s this going to do to ground water flow? What kind of chemicals are involved in his robot drill? What’s in the lubricants, and what’s going to keep this in the tunnel and out of the water table? What’s the likelihood of his special machine causing the ground to subside above his drill? What’s this going to do to foundations of houses, the routing of water lines and underground utilities, the already-fragile sewers? If you asked him, he’d probably shrug and say something flippant and mildly antisemitic, because he figures all that’s minor details he can work out on the fly. Right up until it blows up in his face.

    I tell you, this thing’s going to be a mess. The lawsuits will last decades.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Musk is a smart guy, but apparently he has no understanding whatsoever of throughput or carrying capacity.

    Maybe his travails in manufacturing will teach him that maintaining a high volume flow depends on more than speed.

  • Jeremy

    My concerns:

    1) If this gets built and is operational and is privately owned by Elon Musk, he decides to cash out at a future date and sell the express system (it isn’t a train). In 15 years, this could be owned by Goldman Sachs, Saudi sheiks, or the Church of Scientology.

    2) The owner of the system will have veto rights over “competing” projects. This is like how Daley sold off the Millennium Park parking lots. Connecting the Brown Line to the Blue Line could be blocked. Ashland BRT could be blocked. Improvements to the Antioch Metra line (which stops at O’Hare) could be blocked.

    3) The city could be on the hook for ridership minimums. The city may have to buy 1,000 tickets every day.

    4) Something happens that prevents Elon Musk from producing more “skates”. Will there be someone to manufacture/repair these things in 30 years?

    5) The downtown station isn’t at Union Station to link with Amtrak and Metra, or at Thompson Center to link with Brown, Green, Orange, and Purple lines. Who wants to go to Block 37 (unless a downtown casino and sports book moves in)?

  • kastigar

    “The owner of the system will have veto rights over “competing”
    projects. Connecting the Brown Line to the Blue Line could be blocked.
    Ashland BRT could be blocked. Improvements to the Antioch Metra line
    (which stops at O’Hare) could be blocked.”

    This is a deal-breaker for me. Let him spend his own money and take all the risks but stay out of everything else.

  • Robert Kania

    Don’t you want cool new technology in our city? This could be a showcase for what is possible around the country. I’m pretty sure people were against the “L” when it was first being built.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, I’d be glad to get some cool new technology that actually exists.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sorry, some text got snipped from the quote, fixed.

  • duppie

    Anyone else here thinks that this is part of luring AMZN to Chicago? The mayor gets to show how quickly we make decisions here, and how forward looking we are.

    If the luring of AMZN fails, this project just might go away…

  • Jeremy

    I thought the same thing when I heard drilling is supposed to start in 3-4 months. That seemed like an unrealistic timetable.

  • rwy

    Re:5, One advantage of the UP Express that a lot of people are comparing this too is that Union Station has a lot of Toronto’s public transportation in one place. A few streetcar lines, a subway line, and all of the commuter lines. Chicago doesn’t have a transportation hub like that. For most people in the Chicago area, the Uber will be faster. And for groups with 2 or 3 people it might even be cheaper to take the Uber.

    Also, I’d rather not travel underground. If I have a choice, I like to be able to look out the windows. I’m not sure how much this influences the transportation choices of others.

  • rwy

    It’s not the new part that worries me, it’s the old part. Boring tunnels is nothing new, and yet he seems to have figured out how to make it vastly cheaper and quicker. And he tackling a project that isn’t needed.

    And if this technology does work, why not put it to use on a subway below Western Ave where there is a greater need for better public transportation?

  • CIAC

    I’m very skeptical that there would be that amount of ridership. My point simply was that if there ends up being the ridership numbers that Musk is predicting and causes the project to be a financial success the city would benefit significantly from the increased number of people who travel to it. Obviously, its mathematically impossible for the tube to have great ridership numbers and to have nearly all of the new riders simply transferring from other modes of transportation (and those that do go from cars, taxis and rid-share to the tunnel will be benefiting the environment and/or adding capacity to the expressway which benefits the economy. If this doesn’t play out it doesn’t play out. Like I said, if there’s overcapacity in the tunnel there will be efforts to attract more riders and this would probably be even better for the region. But my point was simply that if this does attract throngs of new riders it will have positive effects on the city. So there’s no way that it could lose out, as far as I can tell.

  • Carter O’Brien

    There are lots of potential problems. Yonah Freemark has an excellent breakdown: https://twitter.com/yfreemark/status/1007766586818793473

  • Carter O’Brien

    And how about that, here is a reporter who asked exactly the questions I had in mind. Guess how the answers swing?

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/wisniewski/ct-biz-blue-line-improvements-getting-around-20180614-story.html

  • Eric Pounder

    17 miles in 12 minutes is 85 mph, not 125-150 mph, even assuming acceleration & deceleration cuts it to 15 miles in 10 minutes, that’s still only 90 mph. The Blue line does 55 mph already. This isn’t a radical leap in subway technology even performing as advertised. Color me unimpressed.

  • Kevin M

    Absolutely; I had the same thought. And, it just so happens that just a few days later, Emanuel mentions that AMZN is really impressed with Chicago’s two locations. Emanuel is wagging the tail, expecting the body of Chicago will follow long enough to lure AMZN and then 1 or more terms as king of Chicago. There must be some sort of glue on the mayor’s chair.

  • Kevin M

    “And if this technology does work, why not put it to use on a subway
    below Western Ave where there is a greater need for better public
    transportation?”

    Absolutely! I’d be Musk’s biggest fan if he were to use his sick wealth accumulation and self-acclaimed-but-top-secret tunnel technology to work with Chicago’s current transit system rather than outside of it. Oh, but then, how could he do that while also hating transit? It takes a real loser to criticize/identify a problem that they have the abundant means to solve.

  • Jeremy

    Tunnels going Union Station -> Ogilvie -> Merchandise Mart -> Streeterville and back would be fantastic. I wouldn’t mind if Chicago paid his company to do that. I would rather have a conventional train because it would be easier to repair and purchase since more companies make trains than make “skates”.

  • Jeremy

    I think if Chicago gets Amazon and Musk actually starts digging the tunnels, Rahm is running for President in 2020.

  • planetshwoop

    Which will happen first, an express to Ohare or they finish the flyover by Navy Pier?

  • Chicago60609

    ..and Cicero Ave..and Garfield/55th for a South Side route to Midway Airport.

  • Oh please, please, run Rahm run.

  • Carter O’Brien

    To be fair, given CTA ridership in the face of ride share competition, I’m not sure Musk didn’t say anything that many Chicagoans aren’t already thinking.

  • Kevin M

    Yes, but my point is that Musk–unlike 99.9% of CTA patrons–has the personal means to actually do something to help Chicago transit system. Not only is he not following up his criticism with help, worse, his actions actually threaten the CTA.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Yeah, I mean I certainly agree that his motives are anything but altruistic here. But (and I’m trying to stay optimistic here), it is possible that this system would largely cannibalize from ride share, and/or attract new business and tourism to the downtown area, with the more budget-minded folks will continue to take the perfectly fine Blue Line.

    I mean, that’s the theory. There’s also the possibility that if this works it becomes a model for a Western or a Kedzie St subway system… I’m feeling fueled with optimism/delusion as my coffee has just hit.

  • I haven’t done enough digging to figure out if this has already been addressed, but where in the current tunnel stack will these new tunnels be located? https://www.wbez.org/shows/curious-city/six-tunnels-hidden-under-chicagos-loop/a4a5fc40-fbd6-415e-96b1-29d767363e57

  • Cameron Puetz

    Also 125-150 mph trains in tunnels are an established technology. They’re found in several countries in Europe and Asia. The only thing novel about what Musk is claiming is the price and the construction schedule.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Re: 4
    Building the tunnels quickly and cheaply is the only novel thing Musk is doing. The skates are a similar guide system to airport people movers. They’re just shaped like cars instead of busses and given faster motors. If the skates don’t work, there’s no reason that tunnels couldn’t be retrofit with more traditional trains. They’ll likely be too small to share rolling stock with the rest of the CTA, but could likely accommodate smaller train cars like the ones used on London’s deep tunnel routes. If the whole system fails, the tunnels could be repurposed as a limited stop option to take some pressure off the overcrowded Blue Line.

  • Parque_Hundido

    Well, he’s failed in Reno. What could possibly go wrong in Chicago?

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