Could visionary Elon Musk deliver O’Hare express service to Chicago?

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the World Government Summit 2017 in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah in February. | AFP/Getty Images

Could visionary billionaire Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla fame turn Chicago’s elusive dream of building a high-speed rail line between downtown and O’Hare Airport into a reality?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel thinks he just might. That’s why the mayor dispatched a team of top aides to Los Angeles last week to check out the Jetsons-like technology that Musk plans to use to build a subterranean mass transit system in tunnels beneath Los Angeles County.

“The opportunity for Chicago is endless and boundless. . . . It would be a tremendous investment, job creator and economic engine for the city that would pay dividends for decades ahead,” Emanuel said. “They are very interested. And we’re gonna have `em now out to the city to explore further what we are doing and planning to see whether the tunnel approach is an alternative to the ones we’ve been discussing.”

Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, who grew up watching the Jetsons, came away dazzled.

“What he’s been working on is the idea of tunneling and using single vehicles . . . guided by some kind of combination of a mechanical system,” Koch said Monday. “Some sort of groove with a device that holds the car on the straight and narrow, combined with some kind of autonomous navigation that allows it to send, say a 10-person car every 30 seconds or every minute from the airport to downtown and back and forth.”

“Think of it as a small mini-bus with 8 to 10 passengers in it. . . . They’re contemplating top speeds of 100 miles an hour. It’s all a function of how many curves it has and where it actually goes,” he said. “But it’s certainly capable of going that very easily. It’s a classic electric vehicle.”

And what makes the system cheaper and easier to build?

“It’s the technology for creating a tunnel. Can you dig it with greater efficiency? Can you get the tunnel boring machine to operate more effectively? The propulsion of the tunnel boring machine being electric as opposed to diesel. Can you line the tunnel more efficiently? All of those things factor into cost,” Koch said.

“And if you’re building a 10-person passenger van/bus off of an existing technology like a Tesla chassis, that’s a much less expensive proposition than building what a rail car is or a subway car, which are just very expensive vehicles,” he said.

Musk is the visionary founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX who claims to have a developed a tunnel drilling technology that can dramatically reduce construction costs, in part, by building narrower tunnels and using a better drill.

Musk and Emanuel know each other from the mayor’s White House days, and they talk periodically.

Musk heard about the mayor’s plan to forge ahead with O’Hare express service and expressed an interest in applying his technology to Chicago’s decades-old problem.

“I went out and spent a day with him and came away enormously impressed. Optimistic that it may be relevant to us,” Koch said.

“It is one of the most interesting technological leaps I’ve seen in this area. . . . We want to explore this thoroughly but it’s potentially a real breakthrough technology. It could be a real game-changer in terms of how one thinks about transportation in a dense urban area. . . . They’re very intrigued about doing something like this in Chicago.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley once hoped to persuade Chinese investors to build a high-speed rail system to O’Hare that would originate from the $200 million Block 37 super-station.

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

In February, Emanuel vowed to turn the dream into reality within three years.

The mayor said then that the city has been “hearing from potential investors and companies from around the world about their interest in this project” and that its engineers “have made progress in identifying the routes to move this forward.”

He also announced that the city had retained Bob Rivkin, who served as general counsel under Emanuel’s longtime friend, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, to provide “legal expertise in identifying a clear path forward and working with potential partners.”

On Monday, Koch refused to offer a ballpark cost for a Musk-built system. Nor would he say where the tunnel would be located.

He would only reiterate Emanuel’s commitment to building a “self-supporting system.”

“Urban transit in America is generally heavily subsidized. What the mayor has said from the beginning is this is a high-traffic route. If there’s anything that’s gonna work on an unsubsidized basis, it ought to be this. That’s what we’re trying to figure out and try to make it work,” Koch said.

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