Last June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city had selected tech guru Elon Musk’s Jetsons-esque scheme to build and operate the O’Hare Express, an airport transit system employing high-speed electric pods as a faster, cushier alternative to the Blue Line. The inventor says his Boring Company will 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 says, he’ll shoot customers through the passage in 16-person pods at over 100 mph using “electric skate” technology, reducing the current 40- to 45-minute trip time to a mere 12 minutes.
Musk says he can complete the project within two years for only $1 billion, then operate the system at a profit by charging $25 a ride. Both he and the city swear there’s no way the project will wind up costing taxpayers a dime.
The municipal election could decide the fate of the O’Hare Express. Most of the major mayoral candidates have voiced opposition to the project. “If we are going to make public transit investments, it should be to CTA and Metra,” Toni Preckwinkle 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 in the running as the most business-friendly candidate as well as the younger brother of former 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 Musk 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, although there could be resistance from aldermen to voting to approve the deal before the next mayor takes over. Last week Jennifer Martinez, spokesperson for 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 said 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 affects 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 abandons it after failing to turn a profit, he’ll be required to hand over the keys to the city. Chicago wouldn’t be obliged to continue 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.”
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 claimed to be 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 had excavated the 12-foot-wide passage with an old tunnel boring machine (a machine with a circular cross section that can dig through everything from sand to hard rock) previously used to build sewers in Oakland.
Despite this evidence that Musk’s hypothetical technology doesn’t actually exist yet, Martinez indicated that the city is confident he can pull off the project at the promised cost and time line. “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 transit experts have to say about all this?
DePaul transportation professor Joe Schwieterman said 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 spend large amounts to prove the concept works.”
P.S. Sriraj, head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, 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 Toronto’s Union Pearson Express airport service, which saw dismal ridership until fares were slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9. Keeping the service running at that ticket price would likely require a subsidy of 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 said 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 nonstop service between downtown and O’Hare. “If it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t cost much to dismantle.”
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, even if aimed primarily at business travelers. “Not [even] 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 business travelers these days are headed for River North, Streeterville, 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.”
Depending on the outcome of the election, Plous’s 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.” v
Update [February 28, 2019]: 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 at 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 Tribune that Musk’s and the Emanuel administration’s claim that taxpayers won’t wind up subsidizing the express is “a fiction.”
Read the full interview with CIT’s Jennifer Martinez here.