Chicago announces bidders for O'Hare express rail, but will it connect more than just downtown?

February 08, 2018

The City of Chicago announced this week it received four responses to its request for qualifications to build and operate privately-funded express rail service to O’Hare. As expected, one is from Elon Musk’s The Boring Company, which would presumably use its unproven tunneling technology. Another is from an investment firm, Oaktree Capital Management. The other two are joint ventures of infrastructure builders/operators and investors: O’Hare Express Train Partners (OHL Infrastructure, Kiewit, Amtrak) and O’Hare Xpress LLC (Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, JLC Infrastructure, Mott MacDonald and First Transit).

We don’t know yet how each would choose to create express service to O’Hare. Those details would come in the next step, when each group submits proposals to the city. The only requirements are that the service offer departures at least every 15 minutes, with a trip time of 20 minutes or less between the airport and a downtown station.

The city says proposals must address how they would interact with existing infrastructure, including conflicts and impacts. A smart proposal would not only take advantage of existing infrastructure, it would offer travel benefits beyond the downtown-airport link.

Although the city says 20,000 people travel between O’Hare and Chicago’s central business district every day, that only represents about one in ten of the daily passengers at the airport. O’Hare is much more than just Chicago’s airport. It is the Midwest’s airport.

O’Hare express rail should open routes to the airport from around the Chicago region and the Midwest, not just downtown Chicago. Our CrossRail Chicago plan proposes upgrading existing parts of the railroad network to allow direct rail access to O’Hare.

If Chicago wants O’Hare to keep growing in the 21st century, trains must be part of the airport’s plan. Today O’Hare is operating more or less at capacity, and much of the airport’s time and space is consumed by small planes making short trips that would be better served by fast trains. A puddle jumper from Champaign takes up just as much runway time and airport capacity as a jumbo jet from Singapore. Getting connecting passengers to O’Hare by train, instead of small planes, would free up space for routes where air travel really makes sense: larger planes traveling very long distances.

O’Hare express rail should be more than just a luxury train from the Loop to the airport. It should revolutionize regional access to the Midwest’s gateway to the world.

Paul Bienek

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