Chicago Infrastructure Trust, Transit Experts Discuss the (Doomed?) O’Hare Express

Image: Jonathan Roth
Image: Jonathan Roth

[This piece also runs in the Chicago Reader.]

Update 2/27/19: With the elimination of Bill Daley, just about the only candidate who had anything positive to say about the O’Hare Express, from the mayoral election, the possibility of the project moving forward under the next mayor became much less likely. Both Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, the two mayoral hopefuls heading to the April 2 runoff, have thrown shade on Elon Musk’s proposal. In addition to Preckwinkle’s comment at a candidate forum that any transit investments should be focused on the CTA and Metra, Lightfoot previously told the Chicago Tribune that Musk’s and the Emanuel administration’s claim that taxpayers won’t wind up subsidizing the express is “a fiction.”

Last June current mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city had selected Musk’s Boring Company to build and operate the airport transit system as a faster, cushier alternative to the Blue Line. The inventor says he’ll use proprietary digging technology to tunnel some 18 miles from Block 37 to O’Hare at a fraction of the cost and time of conventional methods. Then, he claims, he’ll shoot customers through the passage in 16-person pods at over 100 mph using “electric skate” technology, reducing the current 40-45-minute el trip time to a mere 12 minutes.

Musk says he can complete the project within 2 years for only $1 billion, and operate the system at a profit by charging $25 a ride. Both he and the city promise that there’s no way the project could wind up costing taxpayers a dime.

Musk isn’t known for truthfulness. Last year he allegedly committed securities fraud by tweeting about taking Tesla private, which cost him $20 million in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit. He also baselessly tweeted that one of the Thai cave rescuers is a pedophile, resulting in an ongoing defamation lawsuit.

Most of the major mayoral candidates have voiced opposition to the O’Hare Express. “If we are going to make public transit investments, it should be to CTA and Metra,” Toni Preckinkle said at a January transit forum.

Musk’s plan is “going to die on its own,” Gery Chico said during the event. “This thing is goofy.”

“I’d kill it,” added Paul Vallas. “I can’t wait to kill it.”

The notable exception has been Bill Daley, who’s the most business-friendly candidate, and brother of ex-mayor Richard M. Daley, who tried and failed to build an airport express. While Bill Daley told the Tribune he has some questions about the project’s cost and fare structure, he also said Chicago shouldn’t fear innovation.

The current administration is hoping to ink its contract with the Boring Company before Emanuel leaves office in May. Last week Jennifer Martinez, spokesperson the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which is representing the city in the negotiations told me, “Our goal is to present the City Council with a proposed contract that protects taxpayers and requires no taxpayer funding.” She promised that, unlike Chicago’s disastrous parking meter deal, which Richard M. Daley pushed through the Council in a matter of days, there would be “adequate time for review and discussion before a vote is taken.”

Martinez assured me that taxpayers won’t be on the hook if the excavation impacts utility lines, buildings, or the water table; if the tunnel is left unfinished; or if the service proves unprofitable and the Boring Company decides to stop running it. She said the contract will include “financial and performance assurances that the city will be well-protected should any such instances occur.”

Moreover Martinez said, if Musk builds the system and then decides to abandon it after failing to turn a profit, he’d be required to hand over the keys to the city. Chicago wouldn’t be obliged to continue running the service, she said, but with no additional infrastructure costs or outstanding debt, “it is likely… the project will be of beneficial use and revenue-positive.”

Read the full text of my email exchange with Martinez here. 

In December, Chicago officials attended a press event for a 1.14-mile tunnel the Boring Company dug in the Los Angeles area. While some of them were wowed by the demo, it consisted of bumpy rides in a Tesla Model X electric car, instead of the autonomous pods Musk had promised prior to the unveiling. And rather than using next-level tunneling technology, the company excavated the 12-foot-wide passage with an old tunnel boring machine, previously used to dig sewers in Oakland.

Musk's "Tesla in a tunnel" in Hawthorne, California. Photo: The Boring Company
Musk’s “Tesla in a tunnel” in Hawthorne, California. Photo: The Boring Company

Despite this evidence that Musk’s hypothetical technology doesn’t actually exist yet, Martinez indicated that the city of Chicago is confident he can pull off the project at the promised cost and timeline. “The tunnel is a tunnel. The Boring Company is refining more efficient approaches to tunneling, which makes the economics of this project work.”

So what do actual transportation experts have to say about all this?

DePaul transportation professor Joe Schwieterman argued that “there isn’t a huge downside” in allowing Musk to take his moon shot. “Of course, there are many obstacles… but there is also the possibility that the Boring Company is willing to spent large amounts to prove the concept works.”

Dr. P.S. Sriraj, head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Institute is skeptical. “I’m apprehensive of how this will all play out,” he said. “Even if the technology has been perfected and the service is up and running, will there be enough people to use it?”

Sriraj cited the cautionary tale of Union Pearson Express airport service, which saw dismal ridership until fares were slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9, which will likely require tens of millions of dollars a year in taxpayer funds. He added that initial ridership projections for Denver’s A-Line airport train, which currently costs $10.50, were also overly optimistic.

Sriraj argued that a much more sensible strategy would be to simply convert two lanes of the Kennedy Expressway to car-free bus rapid transit lanes to provide speedy, non-stop service between downtown and O’Hare. “If it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t cost much to dismantle.”

Musk’s underwhelming LA tunnel demo “did nothing but raise more concerns” about the viability of the O’Hare Express, asserted a local transportation consultant, who requested anonymity for fear of professional blow-back. “It didn’t address… passenger escape options and did not all present the skate technology and the safety of using lithium ion battery propulsion technology in a subway,” he said. “It seems that they are proposing to use Chicago as a guinea pig for system that will likely fail.”

Fritz Plous, spokesman for Corridor Capital a Chicago-based passenger rail development, finance and management company, is even more dubious of Musk’s scheme, which he called “the whims of an entrepreneur peddling an unproven new technology that he can’t even be bothered to explain.”

Plous argued that the whole idea of building transit that only runs between the airport and one downtown station is flawed. “Not that many O’Hare users go to the Loop, and Musk’s tunnel has no intermediate stops in the neighborhoods, as the Blue Line does.” He noted that many travelers are headed for River North, Streeterville, or the West Loop or South Loop. “When they disembark under Block 37 they’ll still need a cab or an Uber — so they’ll probably just catch one at O’Hare instead.”

In the short term, Plous said, the city should optimize the Blue Line by adding elevators to all stations to make them luggage-friendly (and wheelchair accessible.)

In the long term, he argued, we should implement the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail proposal, which would involve connecting the southeast side’s Metra Electric District line with the northwest side’s North Central Service. “That would give travelers from South Bend to Rockford a fast, frequent, one-seat ride to O’Hare, with access to other important city destinations.”

But, depending on the outcome of the election, Plous’ beefs against the O’Hare Express may well be moot. “Rahm’s days are numbered, and so, I believe, are the days of the Musk tunnel.”

  • Wallace

    Let me copy in something from Boring’s FAQ page…

    How can we reduce the cost of tunneling?

    First, reduce the tunnel diameter. To build a one-lane tunnel, the tunnel diameter must be approximately 28 feet. By placing vehicles on a stabilized electric skate, the diameter can be reduced to less than 14 feet. Reducing the diameter in half reduces tunneling costs by 3-4 times. Secondly, increase the speed of the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM). TBMs are super slow. A snail is effectively 14 times faster than a soft-soil TBM. Our goal is to defeat the snail in a race. Ways to increase TBM speed:

    Increase TBM power. The machine’s power output can be tripled (while coupled with the appropriate upgrades in cooling systems).

    Continuously tunnel. When building a tunnel, current soft-soil machines tunnel for 50% of the time and erect tunnel support structures the other 50%. This is not efficient. Existing technology can be modified to support continuous tunneling activity.

    Automate the TBM. While smaller diameter tunneling machines are automated, larger ones currently require multiple human operators. By automating the larger TBMs, both safety and efficiency are increased.

    Go electric. Current tunnel operations often include diesel locomotives. These can be replaced by electric vehicles.

    Tunneling R&D. In the United States, there is virtually no investment in tunneling Research and Development (and in many other forms of construction). Thus, the construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.

    Now, I think Boring is moving away from using private cars on sleds but instead looking at multiple passenger pods. In the case of the Chicago system there would seem to be little value in taking your private car to the airport and having to deal with parking there. But a car hauling sled could be an option if some were willing to pay for it. We could also see very posh single-party pods if anyone feels a need to travel for a few minutes in Rolls Royce conditions.

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  • johnaustingreenfield

    “The ‘last mile’ is a small fraction of the total trip. The only added time will be getting into and out of the cab used for those last few blocks.”

    Not the case. Let’s say two people are headed from O’Hare to the Four Seasons Hotel, a popular destination for affluent or expense-account travelers, located at 120 E. Delaware. (Sounds like you don’t live here, but that’s right off the Magnificent Mile shopping strip.)

    Let’s assume that getting from their O’Hare gate to the OXS station and to the airport’s ride-share pickup area takes about the same amount of time. While Musk says pods will be leaving from the station at intervals as low as 30 seconds, they only carry 16 people at a time, so there may be a few minutes of waiting in line for the OXS traveler. But let’s be generous and say that there’s an available pod when the OXS traveler arrives, and there’s virtually no time between arrival at the station and departure, whereas the Uber traveler has to wait five minutes for their driver to arrive.

    The Uber drive from O’Hare to the Four Seasons takes 35 minutes in regular daytime traffic, so that’s 40 minutes total from arriving at the pickup area to getting to the hotel. Uber estimates the fare at $25 via UberX (non-shared standard vehicle):

    Assuming Musk succeeds in delivering 12-minute OXS trips, once the OXS traveler arrives in the terminal below Block 37, let’s give them five minutes to navigate with luggage to street level, and another five minutes for their Uber to arrive. From there, the 1.3-mile Uber trip to the hotel is 11 minutes in traffic, at an estimated cost of $10.

    So the total for the Uber traveler is 40 minutes door-to-door for $25. The total for the OXS/Uber traveler is 33 minutes door-to-door for $35. Since the time difference is relatively small, there’s no need to schlep luggage through a downtown train station, the process is simpler, and you’d save $10, it seems like Uber from the airport would be a more attractive option for most people.

  • Wallace

    Yes, if you pick a destination far enough from the Loop exit then Uber may be a better option. Assuming traffic is flowing smoothly. But people might decide to stay at the Hilton rather than traveling an additional 14 minutes to the Four Seasons.

    Five minutes to get to street level is off a fair amount. IIRC the pod is lifted to street level in less than one minute.

    virtually all of the latest supertall high-speed lifts, with “up” travel speeds of 10 to 20.5 m/s, have a maximum “down” speed of 10 m/s.

    I doubt the pod elevator would move that rapidly. If so, it would take a second or two to travel 15 meters up/down. But speeds can be faster than normal passenger elevators since pod passengers will be seated and seat belted. Rather than five minutes, a few seconds might be more accurate.

    Passengers enter and exit the system at street level. And it may well be that the pods will be ‘street legal’ and will drive their passengers to destinations close to the exit so there will be a door to door experience for some. By the time the Chicago B-Loop would be completed Tesla is likely to have completed work on its self-driving system. The pods are expected to have normal inflated rubber tires and powered by batteries. If there’s enough demand there could be a pod pickup/dropoff at the Four Seasons. One might load on at O’hare and disembark at the front door of the Four.

    Of course this would be the first set of entrances/exits for the system. If there is demand to support it the tunnel could be extended to the Four Seasons area. It’s possible that there could be an entrance inside the Four Seasons so that one would only have to take the elevator between pod and room.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Please cite the source of your notion that the Block 37 station is going to include elevators that will carry the 16-person pods to street level, allow all the passengers to disembark, and return the pods to the station for new riders, all at 30-second intervals. It’s certainly nothing that the city of Chicago has publicly agreed to.

    More likely getting to your Uber will involve rolling your luggage some distance, taking escalators or an elevator for multiple floors, and then rolling your luggage some more through the shopping mall to the sidewalk, a process that could easily take a few minutes.

  • Wallace

    The test tunnel in LA has elevators at both ends which take cars down to the tunnel and bring them back to street level at the other end.

    I can’t assure you that the Chicago project would include elevators but it would be fairly foolish if they didn’t. Without elevators Boring would have to build passenger elevators and underground stations.

    Here’s a video showing cars going up and down into the tunnel. Pretty quick. Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t explain that the finish surface for the tunnel track had not yet been applied which made the ride a bit rough.

    To meet the 30 second spacing there would be multiple pods/cars above ground at one time. As they loaded they would move to the elevator.

    And, based on how Tesla and SpaceX engage in constant evolution I doubt we know and I doubt Boring knows what the final design will look like. Tesla doesn’t wait for the next model year to introduce an improvement. Tesla has no model years, but a process of constant innovation and improvement. I suspect Boring’s pods/cars will constantly improve as well.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Building a single elevator for one 6-person car in the suburbs and multiple elevators for 16-person pods in the center of a big city are two very different things.

    “Without [pod] elevators Boring would have to build passenger elevators and underground stations.” What? The shell of the Block 37 station already exists underground, and there already are passenger elevators.

  • Wallace

    Sorry, didn’t realize that the city end of the system was terminating in an existing underground station.

    Boring’s overall concept is to bring the pods to the surface regardless of their size, five or sixteen passenger. We’ll have to wait to see it they do or do not install pod elevators in the first system.

    Borning has said that their elevators will take the space of two parking spaces, end to end. Which means that they could be installed in all sorts of places such as curbside, in parking lots, or even inside buildings.

  • Richard Bullington

    No oil stocks, though I do get a tiny royalty from some land on which my wildcatter grandpa kept the mineral rights. While the air is not compressible enough to avoid pistoning, it is WAY more than compressible enough to make this idea of vehicle B pushing vehicle A a pipe dream. A pipe loaded with Mendocino County’s Finest.

    No taxis or rideshares. Not an Uber-mensh or Lyfter. Definitely not a cabbie. Vlad doesn’t like me because I call him “The Impaler” when I post.

    Nope. Just someone, unlike yourself, who doesn’t drink Kool-Ade having been alive when Jonestown occurred. See I EVEN know how to spell it.

  • Richard Bullington

    You can’t load and unload them fast enough “to run much closer together …than cars on a highway” unless you have at least 60 parallel loading bays. The logistics and traffic control to coalesce that many loading stations into a single tunnel and distribute them at the destination would be ridiculous and probably pretty dangerous.

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  • Wallace

    Richard, are you so dense that you thought I was accusing you of being motivated by financial interests?

    Do you think that you increase the weight of your argument by accusing someone of being paid? Or being young? If you were young would you try to discount their comments by accusing them of being old?

    While the air is not compressible enough to avoid pistoning, it is WAY more than compressible enough to make this idea of vehicle B pushing vehicle A a pipe dream.

    In the tunnel any air pushed ahead of vehicle B will push against vehicle A. If you don’t believe that true then you don’t believe pistoning could happen in a closed end tunnel/tube. The force won’t be large but it will partially offset the pressure created ahead of vehicle A. It’s a physics thing.

  • Wallace

    We don’t load and unload cars on a highway. We load and unload them at multiple points away from the highway, move them to entrances, accelerate, and merge into the flow. In the same way a tunnel in which pods were traveling at 30 second intervals would be serving multiple elevators located on ‘sidings’ with the sidings allowing for deceleration and acceleration out of the rapid flow of main tunnel traffic.

    The Chicago system might be different than what Boring is generally developing in that it appears to be using an existing subsurface station. They might be loading/unloading multiple pods in parallel at each end. 60 bays? That would mean scheduling a half hour period for 16 people to walk out of a pod and 16 people to enter and sit down.

    With a five minute turnaround time they would need ten bays. And only if there is enough demand to create that much traffic. If it’s going to cost $25 to use the system I suspect Boring is expecting far fewer passengers. Otherwise ticket prices could be much lower. I suspect this might be like the Tesla S, a strategy in which one sells at the luxury level and generate expansion cash from a modest number of sales.

    If the pods end up being like the illustrations the doors will be wide. It won’t be like an airplane where hundreds of people have to pass through a single small door. And all people will be getting off and on at the same time. It won’t be a case of some trying to force their way past others as happens at subway stops

    Designing a system that would allow only one pod to enter the system every 30 seconds would be very simple to create. Pods would not be driven by people. Pods would signal that all passengers are seated and belted and doors closed. Then they would await their signal to enter the system.

  • Richard Bullington

    Sorry, but look at the illustration. Those aren’t “pods”; they’re four seater autos. So, to carry 6000 people per hour you’d need much lower headways than twice a minute. That would be 480 people per hour (120 times 4) max capacity. To get to 6000 per hour it would have to be 25 per minute or a bit longer then every two seconds.

    People aren’t going to pay $25 to sit in a twelve-person pod, and even if they were, it would require 500 per hour to reach 6000 pph capacity, or one every ten seconds or so. Even that is a serious logistic problem.

  • Richard Bullington

    You don’t have to have a closed end tube to suffer from pistoning. Stand at the platform in any reasonably high speed subway station. The wind from an approaching train is significant. That wind is from the air being displaced by the train moving through the tube. The greater the proportion of the cross-section of the tube, the greater the drag that is produced. YOU CAN’T GET RID OF IT by “aerodynamic” curves on the cars. It’s purely a function of the percentage of the cross-sectional area of the tunnel that the vehicle occludes, regardless of WHERE longitudinally on the car the occlusion happens.

    That’s why even those fancy shovel-nosed HSR trains create the “sonic boom” just before they come out of a tunnel. It’s not REALLY a sonic boom like a supersonic aircraft makes, just a “crack” sound from the sudden air pressure change.

    And yes, I DO think that questioning a person’s motives for obsessive flackery for a proven criminal “entrepreneur” is a valid argument.

  • Wallace

    The illustration at the top of the page? Looks like they’re planning on transporting at least 16 cats at a time. If they can get the cats to sit down and belt in.

    And don’t tell us what the final version of Boring’s system will look like. I’m sure Borning doesn’t know as Musk runs companies that evolve. Whatever they plan on right now will likely be replaced with something better before opening day. And the system will likely be an improved version of itself a year later.

  • Wallace

    Yes, there will be air resistance in a non-evacuated tube. That will hold the maximum speed to the sort of limits encountered by high speed rail. And the hyperloop will take most of the air out of its tube in order to achieve speeds higher than a passenger jet.

    There will not be pistoning in the sense of the air being compressed against a closed end tube. Pistoning is a term used to describe increasing resistance to movement as air is being compressed in a closed tube. Air will be free to travel within the tube.

    I will state very clearly, Richard, that I am motivated by nothing but wishing for the facts to be laid out for the public. I have no investment in or financial connection to Boring. Is that plain enough?

    Here’s what I think, Richard. I think you, for some reason, don’t want this project to be built. And you are desperately searching for any reason you can create to throw doubt on its success.

    I suspect that you may be one of those people who treat new ideas this way. One of the “man will never fly” types who lead with negativity. A skeptic who is afraid of new ideas at your base.

    And I find your personal attacks a dishonest way to “win” an argument. You obviously showed up with a bucket of misinformation and you don’t want anyone to point out your errors. “Shut up! Daddy knows best!!!”.

  • Richard Bullington

    Everyone, just block this obvious Musk employee. Not “Greg V:”, “Wallace”.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Hey folks, keep the discussion civil please.

  • Wallace

    Richard, or do people call you Dick? Again, I have no connection with Musk nor Boring Company.