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Musk explains why he chose Chicago; says O’Hare express will be done in 3 years

Elon Musk and Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday addressed plans for a high-speed underground transportation system that would link downtown Chicago to O'Hare International Airport in 12 minutes. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Visionary billionaire Elon Musk said Thursday he hopes to start building twin tunnels between downtown and O’Hare International Airport within three or four months and said he chose Chicago because of the city’s streamlined approval process.

“In some places, you could be upwards of 12 or 15 different, separate authorities in order to get approval to do things. In Chicago, that is a far smaller number,” Musk said, vowing to complete the high-speed line to O’Hare within three years.

“That allows us to go through all of the appropriate environmental and regulatory approvals, but do so in a streamlined fashion. That’s one of the assets Chicago has as a city. That’s why we want to do the first publicly useful version of the Loop from The Boring Company in Chicago.”

Musk said he envisions no problem at all attracting enough riders to have a one-way fare of $20 to $25 cover daily operating costs. The only question is how high the return on investment will be.

Nor does he anticipate problems raising the $1 billion in private capital he needs to bankroll the project with not a penny from Chicago taxpayers.

“I don’t really have much trouble raising money historically. So, I don’t anticipate too much trouble doing so in this situation. Cumulatively, between my … companies … we’ve probably raised on the order of $23 billion, all things included,” he said to nervous laughter from the crowd of movers-and-shakers gathered to get a look at him.

“The economic case here is quite compelling. I don’t really see any obstacles to that.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Elon Musk and Mayor Rahm Emanuel speak about plans for an O’Hare express service on Thursday. The news conference was held in an unfinished rail station, near the Pedway entrance to Block 37 in the Loop. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Musk said there is a “role for doubters” and people “should question things.” He said it “shouldn’t be taken as a given that things are going to work because, often, things do not work.”

“This is a difficult thing we’re doing. It’s a hard thing. It’s a new thing. [But], I’d hope that you’d cheer us on for this because, if we succeed, it’s gonna be a great thing for the city. And if we fail, I guess me and others will lose a bunch of money,” he said.

He advised those who believe that his technology is unproven and that his vision is pie-in-the-sky to look at his own “track record” and the track record of his companies.

“I’ve done a few things … that I think are pretty tricky. We started SpaceX from scratch. Now it is the world’s leading launch company recently exceeding Russia and China — Boeing and Lockheed combined. Now has the most powerful rocket in the world. You may have seen the landing where we landed the two side-boosters simultaneously at Cape Canaveral,” Musk said.

“The number of people in the aerospace industry — including the best experts — who said that could be done was zero. I don’t mean one or two. I mean zero.”

As for the safety factor, Musk argued that driving from downtown to O’Hare holds far more risk because of road conditions, intersecting streets, debris on the pavement and the unpredictable behavior of other drivers.

Underground super

This unfinished superstation below the Block 37 retail development in the Loop was envisioned as the hub for express rail service to O’Hare. But those plans never materialized and it has sat unfinished and unused. Now, it is planned as the departure point for a new express service that entrepreneur Elon Musk says he will finish in about three years. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Seven months ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood in the $200 million unfinished basement at Block 37 that was supposed to be a super-station and promised to deliver the high-speed transit line between downtown and O’Hare that his predecessor couldn’t.

The mayor argued then that “funding isn’t the issue” because the world has “a lot of resources going toward infrastructure.” The issue, he said, is engineering.

On Thursday, Emanuel returned to that very same spot with Musk to answer the engineering question.

He even gave Musk a Chicago flag for “planting his flag” in a city that Daniel Burnham famously exhorted to “make no little plans.”

Still, the question persists. Why did Musk choose to “plant his flag” here and take a chance on a city contributing nothing to the gee-whiz venture?

Musk said it’s because he needed a testing ground for — and a slower version of — the “Hyper-Loop” technology he hopes will someday cut travel times between Washington D.C. and New York to 29 minutes.

“One of the hardest things to do with any new technology is not to demonstrate that technology and show that it works, but show people that it can be, indeed, useful. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to make something useful where the revenue exceeds the costs of the thing that was done. This is an astoundingly difficult and under-appreciated thing. That is what we intend to do here in Chicago,” he said.

“Chicago is giving us the opportunity to show that it can be useful and economically viable on a large scale…We have a test tunnel that we are digging in Los Angeles. We hope to complete that test tunnel within a few months. … but that test tunnel will be too short to be useful.”