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Ald. Beale: Reports of the O’Hare Express’ Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Rendering of an O’Hare Express pod.

On Wednesday Block Club Chicago reported that Far South Side alderman Anthony Beale, chair of City Council's transportation committee, "declared another of [Rahm] Emanuel’s pet projects dead — the effort to build an express... from O’Hare Airport."

Elon Musk has proposed a Jetsons-esque scheme to dig a tunnel from Block 37 to the airport and shoot well-heeled travelers through them in 16-person "electric sled" pods. The tech guru claims he can build the 18-mile route for a mere $1 billion, and no taxpayer funding will be needed. The city of Chicago has also promised the route won't use public money.

This week the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region's metropolitan planning organization, approved the inclusion of the express project on northeastern Illinois' list of "regionally significant" projects. The Chicago Department of Transportation had requested the inclusion of Musk's plan, which makes it eligible to receive federal funds and approvals. However, CDOT assured us last month that the express project was only recommended for the CMAP list because it is undergoing a National Environmental Policy Act review, not because the city plans to seek a federal grant for it.

However, according to Block Club, Beale said Musk's project is going nowhere because the Emanuel has so far been unsuccessful in extending the Red Line south to 130th Street, at a projected cost of $2.3 billion. “There will be no mass transit project... until that happens, I can assure you,” Beale was quoted as saying.

I contacted Beale this afternoon to get some clarification on his statement, and it turns out he doesn't actually believe the O'Hare Express is toast, although did it's not going anywhere fast.

Anthony Beale
Anthony Beale

"I never said the O'Hare Express was dead," he told me. "I did say that, if we're looking for federal funding, the biggest priority is the Red Line extension. If Mr. Musk would like to fund this thing totally off of his own personal checkbook, and it has no impact on our city resources, then that's a different story."

Beale added that if the express was going to use public money, he wouldn't allow to happen before the the Red Line extension if he could help it.

The alderman said he hasn't heard anything about about what's going on with the city's contract negotiations with Musk's Boring Company tunneling firm. "They've be holding that close to the vest," he said. "I know they're looking at some designs."

Beale said he's "pretty confident" that the contract won't come before the City Council for a vote before Emanuel leaves office in May. Mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle have both thrown shade on Musk's proposal. Lightfoot called the notion that it won't use taxpayer money "a fiction," and Preckwinkle saying it should be put "on pause" and CTA and Metra investments should be prioritized instead.

The alderman said he's not optimistic that the Red Line extension will be funded anytime soon. "To get a funding bill of that size under this current president is unlikely." Donald Trump recently floated a federal budget with massive cuts to transit and Amtrak.

"I just wanted to say that the Red Line extension is my priority," Beale emphasized. "There's already a lot of transportation going to O'Hare, and to have a high-speed tunnel take precedent over a promise that was made to the South Side of Chicago over 40 years ago, I don't see that happening."

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