Parsons Brinckerhoff picked to ID potential routes for O’Hare express train

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Engineering and design giant Parsons Brinckerhoff was chosen Thursday to identify potential routes for high-speed rail service between downtown and O’Hare Airport.

The $2 million contract also calls for the company to develop a cost estimate for the long-stalled project and pinpoint the location of downtown and airport stations while steering clear of the Block 37 super-station that former Mayor Richard M. Daley spent $200 million to build.

The groundwork is expected to take 10 months and set the stage for a “future solicitation to construct and maintain” the O’Hare express system.

Before joining the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and moving on to Chicago,Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans served as vice president for the global aviation practice at Parsons Corp., an engineering and construction giant.

Since Parsons Corp. was one of the companies vying for the O’Hare express contract, Evans recused herself from the selection committee that ultimately chose Parsons Brinckerhoff, Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer said.

Evans plans to do the same when it comes to choosing a contractor for the upcoming makeover at Midway Airport, Kilmer said.

Earlier this month, Evans told the Chicago Sun-Times there were “a couple of alternative routes we believe have merit” for O’Hare express service. But she flatly declared that Block 37 was “not a feasible terminus.”

“It would completely disrupt the existing CTA service that uses that area. Even to get into that space, you have to use those rails lines on either side of it. Trains entering and exiting create conflict,” she said.

She said the upcoming study would determine whether the Kennedy Expressway corridor is the most desirable route, whether Evans’ idea of building a second deck above the CTA’s Blue Line is feasible or whether an alternative route in the West Loop will get the nod.

It will also determine the location for a new or modified downtown station and whether it makes sense to build a station along the way to O’Hare.

“If an intermediate station helps the business proposition, it’s possible there could be one but not many. The idea is to have true express service,” the commissioner said.

“The first phase is to determine the route and station locations. We have to do that first. Until we can define and describe with some engineering certainty a service attractive to prospective users, we can’t go out to market and determine what financing structure makes sense and what parties might be involved.”

Already, the city has asked a “pre-qualified pool” of companies with existing city contracts to submit potential designs for the project. Three proposals have been delivered, including futuristic renderings of what a high-speed rail station at O’Hare might look like, potentially built around the O’Hare control tower near the O’Hare Hilton.

“Typically, the airport finds a way to provide the on-airport station. And the general rule is that fares pay operations and maintenance costs,” Evans said.

Evans has said she’s confident business travelers would be willing to pay a premium fare — in the $25 to $35 range — for express service that would whisk them between downtown and O’Hare in 20 or 25 minutes. That’s roughly half the time it takes on the Blue Line.

“I pushed some of my lawyer and banker friends to take the Blue Line. They want a quiet space where they can talk on the phone and pull out a laptop. They want to keep working. They’re traveling on expense accounts. They’re willing to pay a little bit more to be productive en route,” she said.

Daley once hoped to convince Chinese investors to build a high-speed rail system to O’Hare that would originate from the Block 37 super-station.

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

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