Critics balk at the idea of using public money for an express train designed for wealthy travelers. Credit: Gary Musgrave

With Mayor Emanuel under fire over police scandals and the schools crisis, it’s a strange time for him to move forward with a plan for an airport express train aimed at well-heeled business travelers. But last week the city awarded a $2 million contract to local engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to identify possible routes, station locations, and a cost estimate for pricey high-speed rail service between the Loop and O’Hare.

Some area residents are applauding the mayor’s plan as a smart strategy for fueling the city’s economy. Others say it’s a case of misplaced priorities, and likely to be a financial disaster. Still others argue the project could be more useful and have broader appeal if done as part of a proposal to link the airport with the southeast side.

First, some background: The O’Hare express was something of a white whale for Richard M. Daley. Stoked after experiencing high-speed rail in Shanghai, he pushed hard for the new airport line, eventually spending some $250 million on a “superstation” underneath Block 37. But the city wound up with a white elephant: that facility now sits empty, a monument to bad urban planning.

Last year Emanuel and aviation commissioner Ginger Evans announced the airport express as a top priority, claiming that it would ease congestion on the Kennedy, create jobs, and generate tax revenue. Parsons Brinckerhoff is expected to take ten months to come up with a concrete plan.

But we know that Evans has ruled out using Daley’s Block 37 superstation, arguing it’s “not a feasible terminus” because it would disrupt nearby CTA lines. And since the express train would require its own set of tracks, it probably won’t parallel the Blue Line, which is shoehorned between lanes of the Kennedy.

It’s likely the corridor for Metra’s North Central Service, which currently stops on the northeast side of the airport on its way to Antioch, would be used instead. The downtown terminal would probably be Union Station, already slated for a major renovation.

The ride would likely take about 20 or 25 minutes, compared to the current 40 to 45 minutes for the Blue Line, Evans said. She estimated that an express ticket would cost between $25 and $35.

The commissioner told the Sun-Times she’s confident that bankers and lawyers will pony up for a faster, plusher ride.

“They want a quiet space where they can talk on the phone and pull out a laptop,” she said. “They’re traveling on expense accounts.”

Bruce Unruh agrees. He lives in Oak Park and flies in and out of O’Hare frequently for his job as a commercial construction rep. He usually takes a cab, at an average cost of $38.

“Even if the express wouldn’t benefit me very often, I’d support all public transportation options like this,” he said. “Thirty dollars to and from downtown would certainly compete with taxi service, and would just plain be more [environmentally] responsible.”

A rendering of a possible design for an express train station at O’Hare.
A rendering of a possible design for an express train station at O’Hare.Credit: City of Chicago

A 2006 CTA business plan for an airport express estimated a $1.5 billion price tag. Although a news release from the mayor’s office said the goal is to avoid using taxpayer money for construction and operations, Evans conceded to the Tribune that public funds will likely be used for building the stations.

Chinese investors in search of public-private partnerships may also be interested in bankrolling the service, according to DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman. Other possible funding sources include a federal transportation infrastructure loan, or using revenue from airport passenger facility charges.

Detractors balk at this cost, arguing that the train project would be a wasteful boondoggle. Urban planner Daniel Kay Hertz skewered the plan in a recent Chicago magazine piece.

While no one claims a $30 train ride is going to appeal to ordinary riders, Hertz argues that the service won’t even attract its target ridership of people with deep pockets or expense accounts. Boosters have cited Toronto’s Union Pearson Express as a model, but Hertz notes that ridership on that line has been dismal. In fact, Toronto officials announced last week that fares would be slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9 in hopes of attracting more customers.

Hertz also notes that the Blue Line is already a popular train route to O’Hare, and it’s likely to be improved by the current Blue Line renovation project, which could shave up to five minutes off the trip from O’Hare to the Loop. Moreover, the Blue Line runs every four to ten minutes, while the airport express would likely run at 15-minute intervals and drop passengers off much farther from Michigan Avenue hotels.

When you factor in the additional waiting time, plus the cab or bus ride from Union Station, he argues, the expensive train wouldn’t be much faster or more convenient than the cheap one.

Finally, Hertz argued that the project could divert taxpayer dollars from transit projects at much higher priority.

Some transit advocates say they would only support the project if it used no public funds. Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke is in that camp. “We should focus on connecting the spokes in our hub-and-spoke transit system to better serve neighborhoods outside the Loop,” he says. Extending existing rail lines and giving buses priority with dedicated lanes “would be more efficient investments that would provide greater benefits.”

A map of the route for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s 'CrossRail' proposal.
A map of the route for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ‘CrossRail’ proposal.Credit: Midwest High Speed Rail Association

Rick Harnish, director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association—which is enthusiastically backing Emanuel’s plan—argues that his group’s CrossRail proposal would be a solution for adding value to the express project and ensuring that it’s not simply an amenity for elites at the expense of other residents, as critics have claimed.

This would involve connecting the southeast side’s Metra Electric District line with the northwest side’s North Central Service via a freight route that runs west from McCormick Place along 16th Street.

The plan also calls for upgrading the North Central from diesel to electric power, and eliminating dangerous at-grade rail crossings. The Electric District would get track upgrades, switch modernization, and station rehabs.

Harnish said these improvements would create a new crosstown rail corridor able to handle many types of service, including the O’Hare express, but also Metra, CTA, the South Shore Line, Amtrak, and even the kind of high-speed bullet trains common in Europe and Asia.

“CrossRail is what politicians call a ‘Christmas tree,'” he said. “It’s got many different ornaments to appeal to a broad constituency.”

These upgrades wouldn’t come cheap. Harnish’s group estimates a grand total of $3.5 billion.

But the sound of rapid transit cars on the Electric District tracks would be music to Mike Payne’s ears. He’s a long-time south-sider and office-machine technician who now lives in west-suburban Lisle.

For years Payne has pushed for the CTA to take over the route from Metra, a scheme he calls the Gray Line. His plan would mean lower fares and more frequent service, making it easier for low-income residents of the southeast side to access jobs. But he complains that his idea has been largely ignored by city officials.

While Payne wouldn’t have a problem with an airport express bankrolled solely by private investors, he’s infuriated by the idea of taxpayer dollars being spent on the O’Hare express.

“That would be a huge waste,” he says. “Building connections between different el lines is much more important than creating a $30 train for one-percenters.”

The O’Hare express engineering team will study CrossRail as part of their planning process, according to aviation department spokesman Owen Kilmer. If the city does embrace CrossRail, Payne says the O’Hare express project could “serve a very diverse demographic-instead of just catering to rich people.” v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.