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City Council urged to seize Musk’s O’Hare express offer or risk having him walk

A top mayoral aide urged the City Council Friday to seize Elon Musk’s offer to build a “Tesla-in-a-tunnel” high-speed transit system between downtown and O’Hare Airport or risk having the visionary, but mercurial Musk walk away from Chicago and take his idea to another city.

After a bumpy, but exhilarating California test ride, a delegation of city officials returned home this week more convinced than ever that Musk’s plan would work in Chicago.

But Aviation Committee Chairman Matt O’Shea (19th) came back equally convinced that City Council approval of the contract that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is finalizing with Musk and hopes to introduce early next year should be postponed until Chicagoans choose a new mayor.

On Friday, Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld made the opposite argument.

She said the 17-mile project would be built “totally at the risk” of Musk’s The Boring Company and it’s “not often when you have a private partner” chomping at the bit to make a $1 billion investment with the potential to have a “catalytic effect on our economy” while taking “cars off of the Kennedy” Expressway.

“Our task…is to hammer out this deal. We have a great opportunity with a private, willing partner at the table. This is an example of a project that’s been called for for decades. Mayor Daley tried several times to take a cut at this. It was never successful,” Scheinfeld said.

“We are very close here. That’s what we have to keep in mind. We have a great opportunity. We would not like to see this go to waste. Ultimately, this is gonna be up for approval of City Council and I hope they don’t let it sit idle and risk that partner would walk away if it’s not approved in a timely manner.”

On June 14, Musk stood beside Emanuel in the $200 million unfinished basement at Block 37 expected to be the downturn terminus of his underground transit system and said he hoped to start building his twin tunnels between downtown and O’Hare Airport within three to four months.

He said he chose Chicago to build the high-speed transit line because “the number of approving authorities is small” here. 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.

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

Scheinfeld couldn’t agree more. She described the project as a sure-fire winner and said she anticipates a “huge demand” for the premium service. And it won’t be at the CTA’s expense.

“There’s a huge market today of people who are paying much more than that to get frustrated sitting in a vehicle on the Kennedy because of the congestion…Putting in this alternative — I think there’ll be a huge demand for it,” Scheinfeld said.

“The mode shift….would primarily be people who are taking livery, taxis, ride share and who want that more express or customized service. You’d see some switchover from the Blue Line. But for people working at O’Hare or economy travelers, it’s probably less likely.”

If the project is such a sure-fire winner, Scheinfeld was asked whether Chicago taxpayers would get a cut of the fares and advertising revenue from the new system after Musk recoups his initial, $1 billion-plus investment.

She said all of those terms are still being hammered out in the contract that will be presented to a City Council skeptical about everything from environmental impacts, regulatory approvals and financing costs to the premium fare market, what lies underground and Musk’s unproven, low-cost, high-speed tunneling technology.

But the commissioner said the final contract will be nothing like the widely-despised parking meter deal that has put private investors on pace to recoup their entire $1.16 billion investment by 2021 with 62 years to go in the lease.

“All of those questions [about terms] are part of our negotiations with The Boring Company. We’re still at the table with them to…hammer out, what we think is the best deal available for the taxpayers,” Scheinfeld said.

“This asset doesn’t exist today. It’s apples and oranges from the parking meter situation.”