Progressive Caucus chair wants to slow down Rahm’s O’Hare Express

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Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) has a lot of questions about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build a high-speed rail to O’Hare. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The chairman of the City Council’s 11-member Progressive Caucus is demanding a series of public hearings to slow down what he calls Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pre-election rush to build a high-speed rail line between downtown and O’Hare Airport.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), one of Emanuel’s most outspoken City Council critics, said Thursday questions need to be answered about the need to demolish homes and businesses and about the ridership impact on the CTA’s Blue Line before the mayor forges ahead.

Waguespack also questioned the long-term impact on Chicago taxpayers.

That’s even after Emanuel has ruled out even a penny of taxpayer support and demanded that the system be bankrolled exclusively by fares, advertising and transit-oriented development while also requiring that fares remain below the cost of an Uber, Lyft or cab ride to O’Hare.

“What happens a decade or two from now in terms of liability? Who’s on the hook if this thing goes belly up? People need to know what they would be on the hook for. [Emanuel] has done nothing to put that information out there or have any public input,” Waguespack said.

“No one has talked at all about the impact it would have on the Blue Line. If you’re gonna transfer a lot of the ridership, you’re gonna continue to put pressure on public transportation.”

Waguespack noted that the request-for-proposals issued by the city late Friday — due back May 18 — makes it clear that the city’s sweeping condemnation powers can and will be used to acquire property needed to build the system, either above or below ground.

“People deserve to know what the impact is gonna be on them instead of just making it seem like it’s some kind of rosy project and they won’t have to pay a dime. That’s never happened,” Waguespack said.

Last week, the city narrowed the O’Hare express sweepstakes to two teams. Visionary billionaire Elon Musk leads one of them.

Stock in Musk-owned Tesla has since taken a fall following an investigation into a fatal Tesla crash and Moody’s downgrade of the electric car maker’s credit rating.

Musk’s The Boring Company plans to create a “high-speed loop” using “electric pods” in underground tunnels he claims can be built for far less money because of the drilling technology he has pioneered.

He will vie against O’Hare Xpress LLC, whose power players include Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, JLC Infrastructure, Mott MacDonald and First Transit.

Waguespack’s resolution, introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, calls for the Transportation Committee to hold hearings before April 18 to consider the “legal and economic impact” of the O’Hare express project.

It demands testimony by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, the Chicago Departments of Transportation and Finance and the CTA. The slow-starting trust is presiding over the O’Hare express competition.

Emanuel spokesman Grant Klinzman acknowledged that the City Council has “an important role to play in the construction of express service to O’Hare.” But not yet.

“We are in the middle of a multi-stage procurement process that will eventually have council hearings and a vote,” Klinzman wrote in an email.

The express line has been an elusive dream of Chicago mayors for decades.

“He’s only thinking about his re-election and how many flashy projects he can put out there,” Waguespack said, one day after the City Council signed off on an $8.5 billion O’Hare expansion project.

“That’s wrong-headed when you’re not willing to go out to the public and say, `I have this mega-idea that I want to propose to you.’ The refusal to have a public conversation, but forge ahead with private plans —we can’t operate in this kind of closed-door, backroom dealing.”

Klinzman strongly denied Waguespack’s claim that Emanuel is in a pre-election rush to deliver what his predecessor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, couldn’t.

“The only thing being rushed is Ald. Waguespack’s judgment,” Klinzman wrote.

Waguespack noted that Toronto opened a high-speed rail line before the 2015 Pan Am Games that struggled so hard to reach ridership goals that the $27.50 fare had to be cut in half.

“It’s basically turned out to be somewhat of a failure. They had to increase the rates. They haven’t had the ridership that they claimed they would,” the alderman said.

“Some people point to other projects that have worked. But those are in their infancy.”

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