Elon Musk chosen to build, operate O’Hare express dubbed ‘Tesla-in-a-tunnel’
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Would you pay up to $25 for a 12-minute ride from downtown’s Block 37 to O’Hare Airport aboard an electric vehicle seating 16 — dubbed “Tesla-in-a-tunnel” — racing underground at speeds well over 100 m.p.h.?
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get that chance.
The Boring Company, owned by visionary billionaire Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame, has been chosen to build and operate an elusive high-speed rail line between downtown and an expanding O’Hare.
“We have a person in Elon Musk who started an electric car company from nothing and started a space company from nothing and he has proven that he doesn’t like to fail,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who shares that “failure-is-not-an-option” trait with Musk.
“Here’s a guy in two different other transportation modes who has taken huge risks — not only economic, [but] reputational. We’re gonna bet on those two things and that track record in this next step with no money and all upside. … That’s a pretty good pay-off for us, vs. zero dollars from the public.”
The Boring Company plans to use the low-cost, fast-paced tunneling technology it has pioneered to build twin tunnels originating at the mothballed Block 37 super-station which stands as an unfinished, $200 million symbol of the failed efforts of the past.
Officials at the Boring Company consider the station that now resembles an unfinished basement an “amazing facility,” arguing that the project would be “much harder” without it.
The tunnels — each 12 feet in diameter — would be dug 30 to 60 feet below ground on a route to be determined during the negotiating phase that comes next.
They would be built beneath city streets and head “straight northwest” to O’Hare, terminating at a new station between Terminals 1 and 3. The route “could at some point go underneath” the Kennedy Expressway, the median of which includes the CTA’s Blue Line, said Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin.
Rivkin branded “only partially correct” the premise that Musk’s proposal is based on unproven technology.
“We’re talking about a Tesla-in-a-tunnel. … The vehicles that will be used in this project are essentially the chassis of a Tesla Model X built to accommodate sixteen people in sitting positions.”
Likewise, Rivkin argued that tunneling technology is tested and “quite advanced.”
It includes what he called “remarkable pieces of equipment that not only bore the tunnel, but construct a concrete lining out of inter-locking pieces that makes the tunnel essentially impervious to caving in.”
“What’s new is that Musk had the vision to figure that he could disrupt the tunneling business the way he’s disrupted the space travel business, the battery business and the automobile business by figuring out how to tunnel more quickly and cheaply than has been possible so far and to put his money where his mouth is,” Rivkin said.
“As the mayor demanded, this project will not be receiving public funds. It’s entirely on the shoulders of the private concessionaire.”
The Boring Company believes it can deliver the soup-to-nuts system — including the cost of completing the Block 37 super-station and building the new O’Hare station in space leased from the city — for under $1 billion.
Emanuel has ruled out even a penny of taxpayer support and demanded that the system be bankrolled exclusively by project revenues — including fares and advertising — while also demanding that fares remain below the cost of an Uber, Lyft or cab ride to O’Hare.
Musk’s tunneling company has vowed to do even better than that, using a slower version of the “Hyper-Loop” technology it hopes to use to pave the way to cut travel times between Washington D.C. and New York to 29 minutes.
The Boring Company’s goal is a one-way fare in the $20-to-$25-range, maybe less. That’s half the cost of a cab or ride-share.
And while it can take about 40 minutes to ride the Blue Line from the Clark/Lake station to O’Hare, the Tesla-like “electric skate vehicles” would travel at speeds that could reach 150 mph — though slower along curves — to get you there in 12 minutes.
The system would include 80 to 100 electric cars departing from Block 37 and O’Hare “as frequently as every 30 seconds” during rush-periods, Rivkin said.
Still to be determined, in addition to the precise route, are the amenities to be offered for the premium fare.
Rivkin said it’s unlikely air travelers rushing to catch flights would be able to save a few minutes by checking their luggage at Block 37.
“I know that was an original vision of what might happen 20 or 30 years ago with an O’Hare express. … But, there’s no existing plan for security and TSA involvement,” he said.
There will be wi-fi and luggage racks on board. But no food or drink service.
“You’ll hardly have time to open your book before you’ll already be at your destination,” Rivkin said.
Toronto opened a high-speed rail line before the 2015 Pan Am Games that struggled so hard to reach ridership goals, the $27.50 fare had to be cut in half.
In Chicago, Emanuel has little doubt there will be a repeat market large enough to support a system without a city subsidy.
It’s not just the amusement park-style wow factor of Musk technology and speedy underground cars that will convince riders to try it once.
“Getting from downtown to O’Hare or O’Hare to downtown is a race against time. We’re gonna give people a leg up. People have paid for time [forever]. Time is the one commodity you can’t expand,” the mayor said.
“Look at London. They have two offers: commuter stop and express. Look at Hong-Kong. This is not like it hasn’t been tested. And you’re asking me in one of the busiest airports in the globe with one of the most important business centers, will people pay for a 12-minute ride? The answer is, I do believe that.”
Rivkin said the system will be so attractive, “connecting passengers may actually decide they want to spend a few hours in the city” before returning to O’Hare.
“Elon Musk and his company are making a significant financial bet that is the case. We are going to allow them to make that bet on their nickel and we believe they will be successful,” Rivkin said.
And what if Musk is wrong about that bet? What’s the risk then for Chicago taxpayers?
“The only real risk to the city is that it doesn’t get built. … It’s not much of a risk to have a partially-built, essentially cave-in-proof sealed tunnel 30-to-60 feet underground in some portion of the city. In fact, we already have such things under our city,” Rivkin said.
For now, Emanuel can rightfully claim — as he did in late November while standing in the Block 37 basement — that he is one step closer to delivering on what his predecessor couldn’t because times and technology have changed.
The Emanuel administration announced its selection by distributing the information to major news outlets with a strict embargo of 5 a.m. Thursday.
Reporters were forbidden from contacting elected officials, the companies that were passed over or transportation and engineering experts who might offer a critical or more discerning point of view. That gave Emanuel a clean shot before the crowded field of mayoral challengers starts taking pot-shots at the idea.
Fired Chicago Police Superintendent-turned-mayoral challenger Garry McCarthy has talked often about Emanuel’s penchant for glitzy projects that divert attention from crime, higher taxes and the sex abuse scandal at the Chicago Public Schools. McCarthy calls it the “shiny penny” strategy.
“Elon Musk is committing the hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money to make it real. That’s hardly a mere shiny bauble,” Rivkin said.
Emanuel said the O’Hare express project, O’Hare and Midway expansion and projects to modernize the Union Station and the CTA’s Red and Blue lines are “about Chicago’s future. It has nothing to do with mine.”
If all goes well, construction of the twin tunnels could begin as early as next year. The first phase will include what Rivkin calls a “trunk line” between Block 37 and O’Hare with no stations between.
But Rivkin noted the system would be “scalable,” opening the door to a host of intriguing possibilities.
“Branch lines that could be built coming off the main trunk line could stop at other locations. Indeed, a large number of other locations depending on the economics of it. But they won’t slow down the main service from O’Hare to downtown,” Rivkin said.
“You could imagine a branch line to McCormick Place. You could imagine a branch line to the Obama library. You could imagine branch lines to a variety of nodes within the city, which could be an even more valuable and growing civic amenity.”
The Boring Company beat out O’Hare Xpress LLC, whose power-player participants included Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, JLC Infrastructure, Mott MacDonald and First Transit.
Two other teams that responded to the city’s Round One “request for qualifications” (RFQ) were eliminated amid questions about their “ability to deliver the critical project with no public subsidy.”
“Musk provided the best offer,” Rivkin said. “The reason, in large part, is that it’s a tall order to get a private entity to bear 100 percent of the risk.”