Chicago Transportation Chief’s Pitch for Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express, Annotated

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. Image: Chicago Sun-Times
CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. Image: Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld has overseen the completion of several good projects during her four years on the job, including the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, the Bloomingdale Trail, the Chicago Riverwalk, and 100 miles of new and upgraded bike lanes. (However, it’s worth noting all of these initiatives were launched by her higher-profile predecessor, Gabe Klein.)

Since Scheinfeld’s boss Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t running for reelection, it’s likely her tenure will end in a few months. So it’s a head-scratcher why the commissioner recently gave a full-throated endorsement of tech guru Elon Musk’s proposal to dig a tunnel from the Chicago Loop to O’Hare Airport and whisk travelers there at 125-150 mph in 8-16-person pods using “electric skate” technology. Actual transit experts have almost universally dismissed Musk’s plan as a fantasy based on nonexistent tech.

Last week Musk held a press event to unveil a new 6,000-foot-long, 12-foot-wide tunnel in Hawthorn, California, in which attendees were taken on bumpy rides in a Tesla Model X through the passageway. In the wake of the demo, Scheinfeld gave an interview to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman in which she expressed full confidence in the O’Hare Express proposal. Moreover, she urged local alderman to promptly approve the project’s contract for fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let’s take a closer look at some of Scheinfeld’s key statements from the interview.

The "Tesla in a tunnel" demo that Scheinfeld says "all Chicagoans can... be excited about." Photo: The Boring Company
The “Tesla in a tunnel” demo that Scheinfeld says “all Chicagoans can… be excited about.” Photo: The Boring Company

On the California presser: “It was a great example of a step forward. As [Chicago deputy mayor Bob] Rivkin said, this isn’t radical new technology, it’s a Tesla in a tunnel. It’s a very basic thing that all Chicagoans can understand and be excited about… [It was] showing proof of concept, essentially.”

What exactly is the step forward here? Musk has previously claimed that his Boring Company’s proprietary digging technology would speed up the digging process 14-fold compared to conventional methods and cut costs by up to 90 percent. But for this tunnel he simply purchased a pre-owned tunneling machine, previously used for digging sewers in Oakland, California, and renamed it “Godot.”

Musk claimed that the 1.14-mile project cost $10 million per mile to build, boasting that this was exponentially cheaper than other tunnels of similar lengths. (It’s worth noting that his track record for truthfulness is not the greatest.) Some media outlets have compared the new tunnel to subway projects that cost hundreds of millions per mile.

But other folks have pointed out that, even if Musk’s $10 million figure is accurate, that isn’t necessarily impressive since the passageway is a fraction of the width of a subway tunnel, only allows travel in one direction, and has no stations or emergency exits. Moreover, the $10 million number reportedly excludes research, design, and equipment, and may not include the cost of labor and property acquisition.

So, yes, Scheinfeld is correct that this isn’t radical new technology, and it’s a very basic thing that’s easy to understand. But what exactly about driving a car though a small tunnel are Chicagoans supposed to get exited about?

Spielman asked Scheinfeld if there’s actually a market for $25 rides to get to the airport a few minutes faster. “I think there’s a huge market of people who are paying much more than that to get frustrated sitting in traffic in a vehicle on the Kennedy Expressway because of the congestion on the Kennedy,” the commissioner responded.

Musk has claimed that, using his hypothetical technology (the LA event was supposed to feature “autonomous electric skates” carrying 16-20 people, but so far Musk has yet to produce such a pod) he can reduce the transit trip from O’Hare from the current 40-45 minutes on the CTA Blue Line to only 12 minutes. When you’re talking about nonexistent tech, you can pretty much make up whatever time estimates you like but, sure, a theoretical 12-minute, $25 ride would likely attract many well-heeled travelers to make the switch from taxi, ride-share, or livery service.

But it’s still worth noting that, unlike the Blue Line, which makes multiple stops between O’Hare and the Loop, including several stations on Dearborn Street within walking distance of Michigan Avenue hotels, the O’Hare Express would pretty much be a one-trick pony. Once you’re dropped off at the single downtown station at Block 37, you’d likely need to catch a taxi, Uber, or the CTA to your final destination, which would add to the cost and duration of your trip, reducing the convenience.

Rendering of the O'Hare station. Image: The Boring Company
Rendering of the O’Hare station with “electric skate” pods. Image: The Boring Company

Spielman asked whether the O’Hare express project would make financial sense for Chicago taxpayers. “It would be totally at the risk of the Boring Company,” Scheinfeld replied. “It’s not too often when you have a private partner coming forward offering to make a major, upwards of a billion-dollar infrastructure investment that could have a real catalytic effect on our economy.”

In reality, the project would cost Chicago taxpayers money, potentially quite a lot of it. The project has already diverted significant city staff time and attention from more pressing neighborhood transportation needs. Former Chicago Aviation chief Ginger Evans previously stated that public money would likely be used for building the stations. And then there’s the cautionary tale of Toronto’s Union Pearson Express airport service, which saw dismal ridership until fares were slashed, which is requiring a public subsidy of $8 U.S. per ride, likely adding up to tens of millions of dollars per year in taxpayer funds.

The O'Hare express project is a distraction from using proven technology to improve transit access for Chicagoans.

The reporter asked if it wouldn’t make sense to wait until Chicago’s next mayor takes office before moving forward with the O’Hare express contract. “Our task…is to hammer out this deal,” Scheinfeld said. “This is an example of a project that’s been called for decades. Mayor Daley tried several times to take a cut at this. It was never successful.”

Yeah, you could say that. Daley’s last effort resulted in the $250 million unfinished O’Hare express station below Block 37, which has been a white elephant for the last decade.

Scheinfeld emphasized that it’s going to be necessary for aldermen to strike while the iron is hot by approving the (not-yet-finalized) contract swiftly. “We are very close here. That’s what we have to keep in mind. We have a great opportunity. We would not like to see this go to waste. Ultimately, this is going to be up for approval of City Council and I hope they don’t let it sit idle and risk that that partner would walk away if it’s not approved in a timely manner.”

Spielman then asked whether Scheinfeld truly believed there’s a danger that “the mercurial Mr. Musk” might walk away from the negotiating table.

“Mercurial” is correct, although “dangerously erratic” might be more apt. Here’s just a partial list of loose-cannon behavior by Musk in 2018 alone, which he called the most “excruciating and painful” year of his career.

Musk's since-deleted Twitter attack on a Thai cave rescuer.
Musk’s since-deleted Twitter attack on a Thai cave rescuer.

“I can’t speak for him,” Scheinfeld responded.

That was probably the wisest thing the commissioner said during the entire interview.

The reporter asked how Scheinfeld would respond to the naysayers who say that Musk’s plan involves unproven technology. “I would go back and say it’s a Tesla in a tunnel,” the commissioner responded. “We build tunnels all over the world on a regular basis.”

No, Musk’s O’Hare express proposal does not involve driving cars in tunnels. It calls for using autonomous “electric skate” pods that don’t exist.

Watching the interview, it really is puzzling why Commissioner Scheinfeld opted to compromise her legacy by shilling for a scheme that is most likely snake oil.

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  • Ethan

    That still means TBC has to complete dozens if not hundreds of tunnels in each and every city before public buses are taken off the roads. Any place the tunnels aren’t finished yet, there’ll still be buses. It’s not like the 1940’s when a fleet of buses could replace 100% of the streetcars overnight or in a month.

    If charging for stations is the catch, cities will see it coming a mile away now. We have the internet and information travels faster. It takes time to complete dozens of tunnels in just one city. The other cities are going to know the score by the time TBC tries to court them. If the product and service aren’t worth it, most cities will know and avoid it.

    NASA is still a great department, but the shuttle and the massively over-budget and late SLS are both examples of waste and inefficiency. The shuttle was way more expensive per launch than projected and never achieved the reusability envisioned for it. A whole lot of it was taken apart and checked or replaced after every mission.

    Just a snippet of the October 10th Orlando Sentinel article about the audit from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General:

    At the current rate, the report found that Boeing will spend at least
    $8.9 billion through 2021 — “double the amount initially planned — while
    delivery of the first core stage has slipped 2 ½ years from June 2017
    to December 2019 and may slip further.”

    NASA does great work but competition often makes better products. Compare communist country cars to what Detroit, the Germans, and the Japanese companies were making during the same decades.

    SpaceX has forced complacent launch providers to innovate in ways they haven’t had to in decades, while lowering prices as well. That includes lowering the cost to taxpayers because launches for the government are cheaper too.

  • Frank Kotter

    I fly to and from ORD often and forgo car travel as much as possible. One overlooked aspect is that you grab a limo right outside the each and every arrivals door. The train is to be found either way outside the airport (metra) or down exceptionally long underground corridors.

  • Frank Kotter
  • ben

    Musk is offering to build a high speed public transport system and cover the vast majority of it’s cost. For a site touting improvements to transport, wtf are they contantly writing these hit pieces on Musk. Smells fishy, follow the money.

  • What money?

  • jcwconsult

    This is a fine plan with one ABSOLUTE requirement. All the costs, including changes to the existing infrastructures and any operational losses above what the fare box collects, must be born by Musk’s companies. I have no problem with Musk getting rich from such a project if the users pay enough to make the entire project a great success – but the taxpayers’ risks must be $0.00 forever.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Busted! Yes, Streetsblog Chicago is being propped up by Musk’s archenemies, the Big Three automakers.

    Just kidding, ICYMI, this paragraph explains some of the reasons why sustainable transportation advocates are against the O’Hare express:

    “In reality, the project would cost Chicago taxpayers money, potentially quite a lot of it. The project has already diverted significant city staff time and attention from more pressing neighborhood transportation needs. Former Chicago Aviation chief Ginger Evans previously stated that public money would likely be used for building the stations. And then there’s the cautionary tale of Toronto’s Union Pearson Express airport service, which saw dismal ridership until fares were slashed, which is requiring a public subsidy of $8 U.S. per ride, likely adding up to tens of millions of dollars per year in taxpayer funds.”

  • ben

    Wow, I didn’t realize that Chicago is so cash strapped and understaffed that they can’t do any transport projects besides what Musk is working on.

  • Firstly there is a much cheaper version that could get you there in 20 minutes instead of 12. It’s on existing commuter rail track and it addresses several other opportunities in the Chicago transit region.

    Secondly Musk is either planning on public money to build the most expensive parts or enough riders to pay a too high trip price.

    Thirdly, Musk is counting on another sucker rube mayor. But Chicago already got burned once this century with the “parking steal.” While I don’t rule out another sucker mayor I wouldn’t count on it. Emanuel is a lame duck mayor. Musk could be left holding the bag.

  • Carter O’Brien

    In today’s unsurprising news, more public staff time & energy are being expended per this: https://blockclubchicago.org/2019/01/07/elon-musks-ohare-express-rail-inches-forward/

  • ben

    Show me a link to said commuter track?

  • Rex Rocket

    I would be totally and completely shocked if her next job was in, say, Palo Alto.

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