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

Rendering of an O'Hare Express pod.
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.

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.”

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    Why wont these politicians address how Metra Electric Rapid Transit Conversion would serve similar areas with far less money? They are tilting at windmills, seeking $2.3 billion for a project that will never get funding in this administration.

  • Just for kicks what are the ridership numbers. Of course various scenarios give different numbers, so sure someone should crank out the various scenarios. And sure it’s often an art not a science. But still.

    Because the other major consideration here when comparing where to spend resources is the “ridership / coverage tradeoff”.

    I can’t see the ORDX being a coverage need. On the other hand I could see the 95thX being either ridership or coverage because it is an extension of an existing network el system.

    But then again usually coverage routes do not use expensive infrastructure. Buses are just fine thank you for coverage.

    So back to ridership. In theory which ever route yields the most ridership or ridership dollars gets the nod.

    Easy decision unless no one can provide reliable estimates.

  • Austin Busch

    Given the expanded yard capacity included in the red line extension, I think it’s quite clear which would yield more ridership. The extension both expands coverage and improves service on the existing line, while ORDX duplicates service and coverage.

    If you look at car replacement, it may favor the ORDX, but that will be swallowed by induced demand on the Kennedy at any rate. Otherwise, if you look at time savings per capita alone for the existing riders in each corridor, I still expect it will come out in favor of the Red extension. Total combined time-savings and level-of-service are much better metrics than an amorphous ridership estimate for a project’s merits.

  • Austin Busch

    I agree that MED conversion should absolutely be done now.

    That said, the 95th/Dan Ryan rail yard needs expanded capacity to service the rest of the line, so the Red extension is still a worthwhile project that should move forward. It would be ideal to open an integrated MED within a few years or less, while also planning and seeking funding for the extension within a decade.

  • I agree. Time saving and level of service both fit my notions of what ridership means in the concept of “ridership/coverage tradeoff” (from Jarrett Walker)

    Of course the best option for car replacement on the Kennedy as always is converting the reversable lanes to dedicated bus lanes.

  • FG

    The Red Line Extension is mostly over a mile from MED. And, more importantly, the cost estimates claimed by Mike Payne are way under what would actually be required to separate the stations on the mainline into CTA and suburban and rework the tracks to accommodate three kinds of service (CTA, Metra and South Shore) as well as to rebuild all of the stations to ADA standards and for fare control areas. Unfortunately, I can’t find the link to the site that spells out all the costs that would actually be incurred with a “conversion” – the far cheaper option would be a simple increase in service, however, with ridership hemorrhaging everywhere but Hyde Park and a bit less from the suburbs (and there are a lot of Indiana commuters who drive to MED because the tickets are cheaper and trains more frequent than South Shore trains) it’s unlikely to happen soon. Additionally, direct red line access is more important – and convenient – for transfers for Roseland and South Side residents. MED is too far east to really improve mobility and transfers while the red line is central for bus transfers. I also don’t think that the CTA wants the complication and expense of running an actual railroad, even through purchase of service.

  • Carter O’Brien

    How would that actually work re: the reversibles? They are basically express lanes and as such have limited access to/from the regular lanes, so wouldn’t buses using them be pretty hamstrung trying to actually pick up and unload passengers? Or do you mean using them as basically a BRT that would serve this downtown-O’Hare rider market?

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