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More Evidence That the O’Hare Express Vaporware Boondoggle Is Dead as a Doornail

Artist’s rendering of one the Musk “electric sled” pods. Image: Jonathan Roth

There are some juicy tidbits in Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman's new update on ex-mayor Rahm Emanuel's O'Hare Express pet project. They can help opponents of the scheme, who saw it as a distraction from more pressing neighborhood transit priorities, rest assured that the proposal is going nowhere fast.

In an interview with Spielman, new mayor Lori Lightfoot reiterated her view that "The notion that [Elon Musk] could do this without any city money is a total fantasy. And in thinking about what our transportation needs are, I’m not sure that an express train to O’Hare in the current proposal rises to the top of our list.”

Spielman also cited an older quote from ex-U.S. Department of Transportation chief Ray LaHood, a close friend of Emanuel's, that I somehow missed back in mid-March. LaHood stated that Musk's plan to dig a tunnel to the airport and shoot passengers through it at high speeds in "electric sled" pods was a “pipe dream” from the start. “It’s very expensive. It’s complicated. The environmental impact statement that would have to be done on that will take years... I don’t think it’s a bad thing [that it’s dead] because there are limited resources in the country.”

The downside of Emanuel's failure to pull off the scheme, Spielman reported, is that the feds may require the CTA to pay back grant money used to retire bonds that paid for the $250 million Block 37 superstation. That was supposed to be the downtown terminal for Musk's high-tech hamster tunnel. The CTA built the partially completed station on orders from Emanuel's predecessor Richard M. Daley, who also dreamed of a luxury transit route to O'Hare.

Lightfoot told Spielman she will take whatever action is needed to avoid giving back the grant money, which repaid $175 million in CTA bonds for the superstation, but she's still not planning to build the express.

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said there's no deadline for repaying the feds. Moreover, he said, it's possible that the superstation, which is basically just an underground concrete shell, could be used for other transit purposes. He floated the idea of using it to create a direct rail transfer between the Red and Blue lines. Currently making the transfer requires walking through tunnels at the Washington/Lake and Jackson stops.

Assuming that the city doesn't wind up having to pay back the grant money, the death of the O'Hare Express is good news for people who care about creating a more efficient and equitable transit system for actual Chicagoans.

But, as Active Trans noted a year ago, "elected leaders and city staff... invested hundreds of hours in exploring this partnership while higher priority transit needs are still unmet." Think of all the useful projects that could have been pursued -- strategies to speed up bus service spring to mind -- if all of that brainpower and staff time hadn't been wasted pursuing Emanuel's pipe dream.

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