CDOT Is Trying to Convince CMAP to Add the O’Hare Express to ON TO 2050

A diagram of the O'Hare Express study area from the CMAP analysis.
A diagram of the O'Hare Express study area from the CMAP analysis.

To recap, the city of Chicago’s plan to let highly erratic tech guru Elon Musk dig a tunnel from the Loop to O’Hare to whisk wealthy travelers to the airport in “electric skate” pods is a Very Bad Idea for local transportation. Read all about why that’s the case here.

We’re not the only ones who think so. As reported by Streetsblog’s Lynda Lopez, at a recent mayoral candidates forum, just about all of the participants were strongly against the O’Hare Express.

“If we are going to make public transit investments, it should be to CTA and Metra,” said Cook County board president Toni Preckinkle.

“It’s going to die on its own. This thing is goofy,” said former Chicago Public Schools chairman Gery Chico.

“I’d kill it,” said former CPS CEO Paul Vallas. “I can’t wait to kill it.”

But you know who’s taking the O’Hare Express seriously? The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s metropolitan planning organization, which helps make decisions about what local transportation projects get federal funding. It’s considering the Chicago Department of Transportation’s proposal to amend the regional ON TO 2050 plan to add Musk’s Jetsons-esque scheme using nonexistent technology. That would make the project potentially eligible to receive federal funds and approvals.

It’s a similar situation to what was going on several years ago when the Illinois Department of Transportation, under then-governor Pat Quinn, lobbied CMAP to amend ON TO 2050’s predecessor, the GO TO 2040 plan, to move the Illiana Tollway to a list of priority projects so that the $1 billion highway boondoggle could proceed. Thankfully, that project was essentially killed under the next governor Bruce Rauner, one of the few good things for transportation to come out of his administration.

Read the January 25 memo to the CMAP board about CDOT’s O’Hare Express ask here. The 19-page document, prepared by CMAP staff, represents the initial staff analysis of the project, which will be provided for public comment to CMAP through February 25. “Selected projects should substantially implement ON TO 2050 by addressing current needs, improving travel over the long term, and having positive impacts on plan priorities, such as investing in existing communities, enhancing environmental quality, and improving quality of life,” the staff noted.

The analysis includes some dubious claims about the potential benefits of Musk’s scheme such as “the use of electric vehicles has modest benefits to larger greenhouse gas and climate resilience needs,” even though Grimes’ boyfriend has yet to actually produce a prototype of his passenger pods. Instead, city of Chicago officials were recently wowed when the tech mogul sent them on Tesla car rides through a narrow tunnel outside of Los Angeles.

The memo’s purpose is to compare the proposal to the ON TO 2050 regional plan’s goals and analyze the proposal in the same way that all other transportation projects are reviewed. It includes some gems like, “CMAP staff were not provided with proposed operating costs for the facility. As no comparable projects exist, staff were unable to develop an independent estimate of costs to operate and maintain the O’Hare Express Service.”

And because CMAP wasn’t shown the contract between the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (a non-profit founded by Mayor Emanuel to organize projects outside the scope of City Council) and Musk’s Boring Company, the memo says, “Without examining the final contract document, CMAP staff is unable to state with certainty that no public funds will be expended on the project.”

In fairness the CMAP analysis includes some cautionary material, such as a passage about Toronto’s Union Pearson Express, airport service, which saw dismal ridership until fairs were dramatically slashed, requiring a hefty public subsidy. “The [Toronto] service demonstrates the importance of matching pricing and service to market demand, as well as clear definition of public and private roles early in the process,” the CMAP staffers noted.

It’s troubling to see that CMAP is considering adding Musk’s boondoggle to its list of priority project for federal funding. But hopefully the public input process will help convince decision makers at CMAP not to enable the city of Chicago’s tunnel vision.

Opportunities for public input include:

  • Emailing ohareexpress@cmap.illinois.gov
  • Mailing a letter:
    Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
    Attn: Elizabeth Schuh
    233 South Wacker Drive, Suite 800
    Chicago, IL 60606
  • Attend one of the two public meetings:
    February 13, 9:30 a.m.: CMAP Board
    February 22, 9:30 a.m.: CMAP Transportation Committee

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