New aviation chief calls high-speed rail to O’Hare ‘essential’ infrastructure

SHARE New aviation chief calls high-speed rail to O’Hare ‘essential’ infrastructure
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Newly-appointed Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans talks to reporters at City Hall Tuesday after her confirmation hearing. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

High-speed rail from downtown to O’Hare Airport is an “essential piece of infrastructure” for an international city, newly appointed Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said Tuesday, suggesting premium fares as “one option” to help pay for it.

After breezing through her City Council confirmation hearing, Evans homed in on a project that’s one of the top priorities on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second-term agenda.

Evans’ expertise in delivering on big-ticket projects is one of the biggest reasons why Emanuel hired her to replace former Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.

As vice-president of engineering for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Evans was charged with overseeing Reagan National and Dulles International Airports, construction of the Silver Line Metrorail project and maintenance of the Dulles Toll Road.

“We just did a rail system to Dulles that everyone thought was not financially viable. It was complicated. The region came together. There were contributions from numerous partners, including the federal government. It was tough. Very difficult financially. Very difficult administratively. But there was a compelling need and the region came together and got it done. So is it possible? Absolutely,” Evans said.

“It’s premature for me to say what the right mechanism is [to build the project]. But, it’s essential. When you go around the world, it’s an essential piece of infrastructure.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley once hoped to convince Chinese investors to build a high-speed rail system to O’Hare that would originate from a super-station the CTA spent more than $200 million to build.

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

On Tuesday, Evans said premium fares are “one option” — at the very least — to help defray the cost of operating a high-speed rail system.

“It could be $12-to-$30. It just depends on what that sweet spot is between the fare and the offering and the financial feasibility. … It depends on time. It depends on where they get off downtown. It depends on how many transfers they have to make. That ridership demand is highly variable depending on the offering,” she said.

Pressed on whether travelers would be willing to pay such a heavy price, Evans said, “They do in certain markets, yeah. International business travelers will for reliability and service and comfort.”

During an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last month that preceded his second inauguration, Emanuel characterized high-speed rail to O’Hare as a “game-changer to the economics” of Chicago.

The mayor was asked whether the system would launch from the “expensive hole in the ground” at Block 37 or whether there were other ways to do it.

“There’s one other way. That’s [Evans’] job to explore some ideas kicking around in how to do it,” he said.

On Tuesday, Evans said she plans to start by examining options along the Kennedy Expressway.

“Regardless of what happens, the Kennedy corridor has to be maximized. It might not be the only one. But regardless, the Kennedy corridor has to be maximized,” she said.

As for the furor over O’Hare noise, Evans was not prepared to sign on to the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition’s demands for fair and equitable distribution of air traffic both day and night, saving diagonal runways and Fly Quiet.

She would only say that she would “cast a broad net” and make good use of at least three public hearings demanded by state legislation.

“We’re gonna put everything on the table. We’re gonna evaluate all the proposals that our staff can come up with, that [the Suburban O’Hare Commission] has come up with, that FAIR has come up with–both for noise benefits and also for any impacts on the operation,” she said.

“All I can tell you is we will do that very factually. We’ll do that on a very thorough basis. And no question we will communicate, communicate, communicate on what we find.”

Evans also disagreed with those who claim that, what O’Hare needs is more gates — not more runways.

“In aviation, those are not either-or questions. The reality is, we need both,” she said.

“We do need to re-evaluate each component of that airfield investment. Each needs to be evaluated on their own merits for the benefits and the cost. But, it’s not either-or—gates or runways.”

Evans also agreed with her new boss that it’s time to revamp the concession areas at O’Hare’s domestic terminals to look more like the mall at the international terminal.

“Clearly, it needs to be improved. There’s insufficient space and insufficient product offerings,” the new commissioner said.

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