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Beyond Chicagoland

Chicago City Officials Swallow Elon Musk’s Kool-Aid

Photo: The Boring Company

From reading interviews with members of the Chicago delegation that attended Tuesday's press event for Elon Musk's new 1.14-mile tunnel in the Los Angeles area, you'd think that the demonstration was a roaring success that bodes well for his scheme to build luxury express service from the Loop to O'Hare. During the demo, an Indianapolis 500-trained driver took attendees on bumpy rides through the passageway at up to 53 mph in a Tesla Model X electric car.

In June Chicago officials selected Musk to create the airport transit service, indicating confidence in his proposal to to dig twin tunnels between the Loop's Block 37 and the airport and shoot people through them at 125-150 mph in 8-16-person pods using “electric skate” technology.

Deputy Chicago mayor Bob Rivkin told the Sun-Times' Fran Spielman that after Tuesday's test he's more confident than ever that Musk can pull off his O'Hare plan. “You just get a sense of the simplicity of the whole thing," he said. "It’s a tunnel with a Tesla in it... [The] notion that this is some kind of crazy, untried technology is just misinformed.” Musk has not actually produced a prototype of the pods he hopes to use in Chicago.

Rivkin acknowledged that Musk is controversial. The tech mogul has exhibited increasingly erratic behavior this year, from committing financial fraud on Twitter, to baselessly accusing one of the Thai cave rescuers of pedophilia.

But the deputy mayor told Spielman, "There is no doubt that he and his team are brilliant engineers and they get stuff done. The application of these re-energized and re-imagined tunneling techniques would be transformative for Chicago… Our visit here has confirmed for me what a fantastic project [the O'Hare express] would be for Chicago.”

Alderman Matt O'Shea (19th), chair of City Council's aviation committee, told Spielman he was similarly impressed. Other Chicago alderman who attended the launch included Carrie Austin (34th) chair of the budget committee and Gilbert Villegas (36th) chair of the Latino Caucus.

Rivkin argued that while it's possible that the airport project would be a failure, Musk would be on the hook for all costs, so it's a no-risk proposition for taxpayers. However, former Chicago aviation chief Ginger Evans previously acknowledged that public money would likely be used for building stations for the O'Hare express. Preliminary planning for the project has already diverted a considerable amount of city staff time and attention from arguably more pressing neighborhood transit needs. And after Toronto's recently built luxury airport service showed dismal ridership numbers, the fares were slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9, at a cost of up to $20 million annually in taxpayer subsidies.

Moreover, despite the city officials' glowing reports about Tuesday's tunnel debut, by any objective standard the event was a failure. As noted by Streetsblog USA's Angie Schmitt, Musk himself admitted that the rough concrete test track, with its bumpy ride, wasn't ready for prime time. "We kind of ran out of time," he said. While the press event was originally supposed to feature "autonomous electric skates" carrying 16-20 people, journalists were surprised when the test turned out to merely involve riding in a car with a driver.

And while Musk had previously claimed that his Boring Company's proprietary digging technology would speed up the digging process 14 fold as compared to conventional methods and cut costs by up to 90 percent, it's not clear that he's actually broken any new ground here. In response to Musk's boast that he built a 6,000-foot tunnel for $10 million, the Transport Politic blogger Yonah Freemark tweeted, "It's remarkable how cheap Musk's tunnel was to build... until you realize it only allows movement in one direction, it's 12 feet wide, it has no actual stations, and it doesn't include emergency exits. Details."

When Chicago officials view a rough car ride in a relatively short, narrow tunnel as groundbreaking transportation, it certainly doesn't inspire confidence in their ability to make sound decisions about the O'Hare express in the future.

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