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Anything but a train: Lightfoot touts luxury ORD air taxi service instead of fixing Blue Line

Rendering of an Archer air taxi.

Chicagoans have been crying out for better Blue Line service, including more frequent and reliable trips to O'Hare Airport. They're tired of long and unpredictable waits between trains, resulting in crowded platforms and packed railcars during rush hours at many stations. To add insult to injury, last month the CTA quietly cut scheduled Blue service for the second time since the pandemic started in an effort to improve the percentage-of-scheduled-service-delivered numbers for the route. As a result, the total number of scheduled Blue Line trips is currently down 39 percent compared to 2019, according to the grassroots advocacy group Commuters Take Action, which analyzes trip data.

But the helicopter scheme is almost as silly as the O'Hare Express proposal. While the e-air taxi system is probably less likely to involve a major taxpayer subsidy, it's still an annoying attempt to let rich people buy their way out of traffic jams and riding normal trains. Moreover, the helicopter trips won't even be particularly convenient or save much time over a Blue Line ride.

That's because the air taxi plan shares a fatal flaw with the O'Hare Express ideas. In both cases there's only place you can end your trip in each direction, making it likely you'll need to take ride-hail or other ground transportation to get to your ultimate destination.

In contrast, the Blue Line has many different downtown stations, not to mention lots of neighborhood stops. That greatly increases the chances that there's a station within walking distance of your final destination, allowing for a one-seat commute.

A car trip from the vertiport to the Palmer House is about four miles. Image: Google Maps
A car trip from the vertiport to the Palmer House is about four miles. Image: Google Maps
A car trip from the vertiport to the Palmer House is about four miles. Image: Google Maps

Moreover, the helicopter "vertiport" is located at 1339 S. Wood St., which is nowhere near the places most Chicago visitors want to go. For example, if you're staying at the Palmer House Hotel, 17 E. Monroe St., that tacks on four miles and about 15 minutes to the journey, plus whatever time you have to spend between exiting the e-taxi and entering your Uber, Lyft, or taxi. (A CTA trip from the vertiport to the hotel takes about a half hour.) If you took the Blue Line from O'Hare, you could simply walk one block east from the Blue Line's Monroe station to the hotel.

Granted, an express train to O'Hare is not an inherently bad idea, particularly if it has a few different downtown and/or neighborhood stations to choose from. A relatively easy and affordable way to do that would be to repurpose one or two lanes of the ten-lane Kennedy Expressway to lay tracks for express Blue Line service.

The Blue Line route (blue) and a possible route for airport express service (black.) Image: Google Maps
The Blue Line route (blue) and a possible route for airport express service (black.) Image: Google Maps
The Blue Line route (blue) and a possible route for airport express service (black.) Image: Google Maps

The express trains would use the existing Blue Line tunnel downtown, perhaps starting at the Clinton stop near the Union Station Amtrak and Metra commuter rail terminal, before leaving the regular Blue route and heading to the Kennedy in the West Loop or River West. (Obviously, this would require constructing some kind of new tunnel, ramp, and/or overpass to transfer the express trains between the existing Blue tunnel and the highway.) The service could charge a somewhat higher fare, say $10-15, and have features like luggage racks, cushioned chairs, and maybe an onboard attendant to make it more appealing for air travelers.

However, the expressway lane conversion idea would might make driving a little less convenient, which Chicago politicians typically view as a non-starter. They're generally more interested in using the latest (or theoretical) technology as an alternative to the mobility solution that's been around for decades in other countries: fast trains.

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