Elon Musk won’t be alone in O’Hare express sweepstakes

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Elon Musk’s The Boring Company has been selected to build and operate a faster option than the current CTA Blue Line to get to O’Hare from downtown. | File photo

Visionary billionaire Elon Musk has declared his intention to propose a “high-speed loop” that would whisk travelers between downtown and O’Hare Airport using “electric pods” in underground tunnels.

But Musk apparently won’t be alone in the Chicago competition. More than 175 industry representatives have signed up for a pre-bid conference in the six days since Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a “request-for-qualification” due back Jan. 24. The goal is to identify teams interested in designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining an express train to O’Hare.

For the time being at least, Emanuel’s decision to rule out even a penny of taxpayer support isn’t putting a damper on the competition.

City Hall has mandated that the system be bankrolled “entirely by the concessionaire” and funded “solely by project-specific revenues” including fares, advertising or transit-oriented development.

The goal is to deliver express service that would whisk travelers between downtown and O’Hare in “20 minutes or less,” cutting travel times in half.

Express trains must run “at least every 15 minutes for the majority of the day” and fares must be less than what a taxicab or Uber ride to O’Hare would cost.

Last week, Musk tweeted a Chicago Sun-Times story about the Chicago competition and declared that his Boring Company would submit a bid. That firm is developing tunnel-digging technology with the goal of building cheaper mass-transit systems using smaller tunnels and individual cars instead of longer multi-car trains.

He said the Jetsons-like plan would involve “electric pods” traveling in underground tunnels.

Musk has previously outlined his vision for a tunnel network beneath Los Angeles, in which cars would park on a high-speed sled and be whisked along underground tracks.

Elaborating on his idea for Chicago, he tweeted, “Electric pods for sure. Rails maybe, maybe not.”

The Boring Company has been constructing test tunnels on the premises of SpaceX, another Musk-owned California business, along with Tesla.

The area below Block 37 is back in the mix as a potential site for express train service to O’Hare. Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked to reporters Wednesday about the plans. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The area below Block 37 is back in the mix as a potential site for express train service to O’Hare. Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked to reporters Wednesday about the plans. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Some observers believe it’ll take that kind of gee-whiz technology to draw sufficient ridership and justify fares needed to make an O’Hare express system self-sustaining.

Toronto opened a high-speed rail line before the Pan Am Games, but it has struggled to reach ridership goals — so much so that the fare, originally $27.50, was cut in half to attract riders.

Still, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has said she’s confident business travelers would be willing to pay a premium fare — in the $25-to-$35 range — provided they get “value-added services” that range from the ability to check luggage at a downtown station to a guaranteed seat, drinks and wi-fi on the train.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley once hoped to convince Chinese investors to build a line to O’Hare that would originate from the $200 million super-station under the Block 37 development in the Loop.

It never happened, leaving the underground station looking like little more than an unfinished basement.

Last week, Emanuel stood in that same unfinished basement — now back on the table as a possible downtown station for high-speed rail — and claimed he could now deliver what his predecessor couldn’t because times and technology have changed.

“A lot of the questions in the past…were about the funding. Today, the world has a lot of resources going toward infrastructure. Funding isn’t the issue. Engineering is….And there’s new technology that gives you a lot of different options,” the mayor said on that day.

“Whether it’s in Asia, the Middle East and also Europe, there are many, many sovereign wealth funds, other types of funds pouring millions upon billions of dollars into funds to invest in infrastructure.”

Emanuel noted then that O’Hare is the “best connected airport” serving a city with the “most diversified economy” in the nation.

“That means you have a high prospect for both tourist travelers and travelers in general as well as for trade for a great investment with a great return,” the mayor said.

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