Chicago makes risky bet on O'Hare access that ignores regional needs

June 14, 2018

Today, the City of Chicago announced that it has chosen Elon Musk’s Boring Company to construct and maintain an express link between downtown and O’Hare Airport.

We support Mayor Emanuel’s goal of improving access to O’Hare. This deal, however, is very risky. Even former Deputy Mayor Steve Koch acknowledged the risk, saying “it's a roll of somebody else's dice,” referring to the private money that will fund the project. From the City’s perspective, betting on Musk might be the best way forward, but it ignores a larger regional issue.

One aspect of the dice roll is that the Boring Company’s technology is essentially unproven.

The O’Hare link would be the first actual implementation of Musk’s “Loop” concept, an automated people mover using small “pods” at high speeds with frequent departures. While each component of the Loop is a refinement of existing technology, putting it all together involves a lot of unknowns. For example, Musk is betting on a narrow-bore tunnel being cheaper and faster to dig. But will the tunnel design allow sufficient emergency access? The system also relies on an unproven elevator system to lower the pods 50 to 100 feet below downtown skyscrapers and O’Hare terminals. For the purposes of safety regulation, will this be a railroad? Or something else that will require a new regulatory structure and rules?

The other risky part of this bet is that it only serves one narrow travel market: high-end travel between downtown and the airport. Only about 10 percent of O’Hare travelers are coming from downtown Chicago.

In reality, the demand for easier travel to O’Hare extends far beyond downtown, even beyond the Chicago region. Today, 95 percent of travelers come to O’Hare from less than 50 miles away. That’s a shockingly small catchment area for an airport of O’Hare’s size and resources. For comparison, about half of travelers who use the Frankfurt airport come from more than 60 miles away. This is in large part because Frankfurt has easy rail access from around Germany and Europe (PDF map).

The entire Midwest needs easier access to O’Hare, and a solution using traditional railroad technology, like our CrossRail Chicago proposal, would meet this broader need. These investments would even improve travel for commuters going places other than O’Hare. Even if it is successful, Musk’s system can’t offer any of these broader benefits.

From a regional and Midwest perspective, this bet is illustrative of the consistent failure of our public policy to take a regional perspective. The fact that it will be built with other people’s money should not excuse it from meeting regional goals. Besides, as Ald. Waguespack pointed out to the Chicago Tribune, “for [Mayor Emanuel] to say it’s a free lunch, everybody knows that doesn’t exist.”

The public comment period for the Chicago region’s next long-term plan begins Friday, June 15. Our CrossRail Chicago proposal would allow for express service to O’Hare from downtown and around the Midwest, along with a host of regional benefits. Please join us in telling regional decision-makers to make CrossRail Chicago a priority.

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