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After years of delays, new O’Hare ‘people mover’ unveiled

The new Airport Transit System has faced delays since the project was first announced in 2013. The new people mover will begin operation Wednesday and can carry almost twice as many passengers as the previous system.

The new Airport Transportation Service (People Mover) train moves along the track, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at O’Hare Airport. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
The new people mover will operate from 10:30am to 8:30pm daily beginning Wednesday, and 24/7 by early 2022, Aviation Department officials said.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

O’Hare Airport is unveiling its new Airport Transit System, also known as the “people mover,” almost three years behind schedule and four years after shutdown on the old system began.

The project, which has cost the city $323 million to date, was expected to be substantially completed in 2018 and has long faced delays since plans for the extension of the people mover were announced in 2013.

The new cars are longer, enabling the system to carry 4,800 passengers per hour, almost twice as many as the previous one.

And with 2,000 more feet of track, the new people mover will include a station at O’Hare’s Multi-Modal facility, which houses the airport’s rental car facility and parking spaces.

“Our goal is not to just create a system for today [or] tomorrow, but for the long-term future of our major global airport,” said Jamie Rhee, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Beginning Wednesday, the people mover will operate from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily, with the aim of expanding to 24/7 service in early 2022. Currently, a shuttle bus system carries passengers around O’Hare. The shuttle will continue to run for now, with the aim of phasing out the buses as the people mover becomes the primary mode of transport around O’Hare.

Paula Valero, 53, who travels globally for business, said she will welcome the airport’s new train system. The shuttle buses, she said, are more confusing and harder to carry luggage on.

“I love the trains,” she said. “It’s convenient. It’s stepping right in from the airport; you don’t have to leave the facility.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans for the O’Hare Multi-Modal Facility in 2013 at the same time as plans for the new people mover, but the facility opened in October 2018.

The interior of the new Airport Transportation Service (People Mover) train, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at O’Hare Airport. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
The new people mover will accommodate more passengers and reach speeds of up to 50 mph.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Parsons Construction Group broke ground on the project in 2017 after initially signing a $310 million, 3 1/2-year contract in 2015. The contract was later increased to $340 million.

Rhee said Parsons attributed some of the recent delays in the project to the pandemic, and supply chain shortages which have made building the system more difficult.

She also said the project isn’t like other airport transit systems, which complicated construction. Only one other system in the world, one in Taipei, Taiwan, uses the same design.

The view from the interior of the new Airport Transportation Service (People Mover) train, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at O’Hare Airport. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Delays in the opening of the new people mover were attributed to supply chain shortages and the system’s unique design.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“This was a complex project; it’s a unique system,” said Robert Hoxie, chief development officer of the Chicago Department of Aviation.

The new transit system will also feature a larger fleet to provide more frequent service. The three-car trains can reach top speeds of 50 mph and can travel from one end of the track to the other in 10 minutes.

Joseph Schofer, a civil engineering professor at Northwestern who researches transportation infrastructure, said the city’s claim that the project’s unique design caused delays is reasonable.

“Not only is there an issue of getting components, but there’s an issue of finding people that know how to do this kind of work,” Schofer said.

Schofer said the city should have accounted for the special design when announcing its timeline.

“It’s shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that it’s not an easy project,” he said. “One ought to have been able to plan for this and perhaps be cautious about what promises were made.”