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Emanuel says Daley’s dream of O’Hare express train can come true

Unfinished CTA "superstation" below Block 37 in the Loop

The area below Block 37 is back in the mix as a potential site for express train service to O'Hare. Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked to reporters about the plans last November. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

If Mayor Rahm Emanuel really believes he can deliver a high-speed rail line between downtown and O’Hare Airport, he sure picked a strange place to make that argument.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley once hoped to convince Chinese investors to build a line to O’Hare that would originate from the super-station the city spent $200 million to build at Block 37.

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

On Wednesday, Emanuel stood in that same unfinished basement — now back on the table as a possible downtown station for high-speed rail — and claimed he could now deliver what his predecessor couldn’t because times and technology have changed.

“A lot of the questions in the past … were about the funding. Today, the world has a lot of resources going toward infrastructure. Funding isn’t the issue. Engineering is. … [And] there’s new technology that gives you a lot of different options,” the mayor said.

“Whether it’s in Asia, the Mideast and also Europe, there are many, many sovereign wealth funds, other types of funds pouring millions upon billions of dollars into funds to invest in infrastructure.”

Emanuel noted that O’Hare is the “best connected airport” serving a city with the “most diversified economy” in the nation.

The pedway area on the lower level of Block 37 leading to the Red LIne. An unfinished rail station below Block 37 could be used for express train service to O’Hare. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez, chairman of the labor-heavy investor group that recently purchased the Chicago Sun-Times, added: “If they ever had a shot, now would probably be the best time to do it. There’s tons of infrastructure money out there, but they don’t have [enough] projects.”

A request-for-qualifications aims to identify teams interested in designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining an express train to O’Hare without a penny from Chicago taxpayers. Interested parties have until Jan. 24 to submit their responses.

The system must whisk travelers between downtown and O’Hare in 20 minutes or less, operate at least every 15 minutes and cost less than cab fare or an Uber/Lyft ride to O’Hare.

Without city money, the service must be bankrolled “entirely by the concessionaire” and funded “solely by project-specific revenues,” including fares, advertising or transit-oriented development.

Toronto opened a high-speed rail line before the 2015 Pan Am Games that has struggled to reach ridership goals — so much so that the $27.50 fare had to be cut in half to attract more riders.

Still, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans is confident business travelers would be willing to pay a premium fare -— in the $25-to-$35 range — provided they get amenities that include the ability to check luggage at a downtown station and then a reserved seat, drinks and wi-fi on the train.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) warned that private investors will demand a “decent return,” adding: “Is it gonna result in a lot of ridership and usage or will the rates be too exorbitant?”

This area below Block 37 was intended as a rail station that could be part of a high-speed link to O’Hare International Airport. After being dormant for several years, it now is back in the mix as a potential site for the service. Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked to reporters Wednesday about the plans. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Ramirez said it might not take much more than a guaranteed seat to convince business travelers to plunk down $35 for a ride to O’Hare.

“Every minute means a lot. Inclement weather or not, to be able to count on 20-minute rides to and from is a huge difference,” he said.

“There’s times it takes me an hour and 20 minutes to get out to the airport. Even more if it’s snowing. If you have to conduct business that day … it would be worth more than $20, $30, $40 to jump on that train and know I’m making my flight.”

Earlier this year, Evans said the Block 37 station was “not a feasible terminus” because it would “completely disrupt existing CTA service that uses that area.”

She changed her tune because the mayor hasn’t ruled out Block 37 as a downtown station for high-speed rail and because the RFQ identifies three potential routes, one of them terminating at Block 37.

“It was based on the planning information we had at the time,” Evans said, when asked about her earlier statement.

“The idea [now] is to put all of the options on the table, see what technologies are out there and see what’s possible….”

Those route options are: the CTA Blue Line that runs along the median of the Kennedy Expy.; the Metra North Central line that comes into downtown just north of Union Station; and freight railroad rights-of-way that would run west to Forest Park, then north to O’Hare.

The Blue Line option could be a structure built above the Blue Line or below ground. The North Central option could terminate at its own station or at Union Station.