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$1 Billion, Two Years, 12 Minutes From O’Hare to Downtown: Can Elon Musk Pull It Off?

The X would cut the normal commute by three-quarters, but there’s skepticism that it can be done within the inventor’s proposed budget—and questions of what the city would do if it runs over.

Elon Musk presents his ‘Tron’-meets-an-Aerostar vision for his O’Hare express-line cars.   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Even with excitement brewing around the futuristic plan to build a high-speed rail line connecting O’Hare Airport to the Loop, and Elon Musk’s Boring Company now at the helm of the project, critics of the project continue to have some pointed concerns.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for one, gushes about his administration’s 150 mph vision. It’s the stuff of tech geeks’ fantasies: a lightning bolt zipping tourists and business people into the heart of Chicago in 12 minutes. “Figuring out—when time is money—how to shrink the distance between the economic and job engines of O’Hare and downtown positions Chicago as the global leader and global city in the United States,”  Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, and he has insisted that the proposal carries no financial risk.

Kate Lowe, a professor of public planning and policy at University of Illinois-Chicago, isn’t sold. Lowe and Janet Smith, another UIC professor, wrote a blistering opinion piece for Crain’s in February describing the notion of the express train as a “flashy solution in search of a problem.” Lowe said Thursday that the addition of Musk to the mix has hardly quelled her concerns. In fact, she said “some of them are heightened.”

Lowe said Chicago already has better airport access via public transportation than cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, so a supercharged tunnel would not give Chicago a leg up on those cities. (In doing so, she stood up for the beleaguered Blue Line, painted as “a sluggish crawl” in The New York Times on Wednesday.)

Besides, Lowe said, “the economic development’s promise are trickle-down. They’re not to benefit the residents of Chicago or folks working at the airport. And we really don’t know enough about this project, nor does Elon Musk’s company, to know what the real costs are going to be.”

The Tribune cited a source who said Boring expects the project to cost under a billion dollars. Emanuel said he felt comfortable betting on Musk given the billionaire entrepreneur’s track record and claims that public money will not go to the project.

“I agree that that’s his intention,” Lowe said, “but if the project is 85 percent complete, and Boring Company says, ‘we have a cost overrun, we can’t complete the project,’ I find it unlikely that a politician is not going to try and capture public funds to subsidize the project.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd ward) shared Lowe’s concerns. “Anytime somebody says they’re doing it for free, you’ve really got to be worried,” Waguespack said. “Because in Chicago that’s been proven to be wrong the majority of times.”

Waguespack said he thinks Emanuel’s focus on the high-speed route has already cost attention that could go to the Blue Line. And he expressed particular concern about a lack of public input: “Some projects are better than others, but this one was done without input from a lot of other people that might be affected by it, including the RTA.” (Chicago reached out to the mayor’s office for comment on Thursday. Update: See below.)

The RTA, the Regional Transportation Authority, manages the CTA, the Metra, and the Pace Bus; the Better Government Association on Thursday published an article detailing the dire financial straits facing the Metra.

The Blue Line ride will remain the primary train option from O’Hare into downtown for the time being. A final route for the express rail has not been announced, though a source described a preliminary route to the Tribune that primarily runs along Bryn Mawr and Elston. There’s also no official timetable for completing it, though at the news conference announcing the plan on Thursday, Musk said he hopes to get digging within a few months and expects to be done in two years or less. For the moment, critics should have time to air their concerns. Those dreaming about the rail line will have to wait, too.

But Lowe said she thinks the focus on the project is itself part of the problem. “I’d like to see our leadership focusing less on flashy projects,” Lowe said, “and more on the projects that would yield economic benefits equitably.”

Update: Mayoral spokesman Grant Klinzman sent the following response.

“The assertion assumes investing in this or the Blue Line is an either-or equation.

“This project is a partnership where The Boring Company is willing to build a transformational civic amenity with its own money because it is taking the risk that ridership fares and other revenues will cover the cost.

“Meanwhile, we are in the middle of a $492 million renovation of the Blue Line that is rehabbing 14 stations and will ensure it remains a critical part of the CTA, accommodates the record ridership growth it has seen, and saves passengers up to 10 minutes on a round trip between downtown and O’Hare. The Blue Line renovation is part of $8 billion in CTA investments we are making to create a 21st century transit system.”

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