Fresh from Tuesday’s spectacular rocket launch, visionary billionaire Elon Musk has come back down to earth in a way that could benefit 20,000 daily downtown passengers racing to get to O’Hare Airport.
Musk’s The Boring Company is one of four powerhouses interested in designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining an express train to O’Hare. Musk’s Jetsons-like plan is to build a “high-speed loop” using “electric pods” in underground tunnels.
The other responses to the Chicago Infrastructure Trust’s “request for qualifications” come from teams with heavy experience in designing, building and bankrolling major public infrastructure projects.
They are: Oaktree Capital Management; O’Hare Express Train Partners, a partnership between Amtrak, OHL Infrastructure and Kiewit; and O’Hare Xpress LLC, whose participants include Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, JLD Infrastructure, Mott MacDonald and First Transit.
More than 175 industry representatives signed up for a pre-bid conference in the six days after the request for qualifications hit the streets.
But Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to rule out even a penny of taxpayer support — and demand a system funded solely by project revenues, including fares, advertising and transit-oriented development — narrowed the field to a handful of serious contenders.
The city wants trips to take 20 minutes or less, with express trains every 15 minutes for most of the day — and at fares below the cost of a cab, Uber or Lyft.
Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, believes those are way too many conditions to impose before the bidding even starts.
“When you put all of that together, how big is the operating window? The more requirements you put on a project like this, the less flexibility you give to the designers, the less creativity they may be able to deliver and the harder it may be for them to put this together and make it happen,” Schofer said.
“It seems like they’re asking for a lot and the city is not taking any risk at all. It would be interesting for the city to listen to alternative ideas and see what comes up as opposed to defining a very narrow path.”
Nonetheless, Emanuel sounded an upbeat tone.
“Four visionary groups have stepped forward because they see what we see: a connected Chicago is a stronger Chicago,” the mayor was quoted as saying a press release that talks about building on “Chicago’s legacy of innovation” with dividends paid “for generations to come.”
Last fall, Musk tweeted a Chicago Sun-Times story about the Chicago competition and declared that the Boring Company would submit a bid. Responses had been due by Jan. 24, but the deadline was extended to Monday.
Musk said then that the Chicago plan would involve electric pods using underground tunnels. Musk has previously outlined his vision for a tunnel network under Los Angeles, in which cars would park on a high-speed sleds, then whisked along underground tracks.
Elaborating on his idea for Chicago, he tweeted, “Electric pods for sure. Rails maybe, maybe not.”
The Boring Company has built test tunnels on the premises of SpaceX, another of Musk’s businesses, in California. SpaceX on Tuesday launched a new rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. For its first test flight, the Falcon Heavy used the same launch pad used by NASA nearly 50 years ago to send men to the moon. It is now the most powerful rocket in use today, doubling the liftoff punch of its closest competitor. The larger rocket is designed to hoist supersize satellites as well as equipment to the moon, Mars or other far-flung points.
The other players in the O’Hare express sweepstakes are no slouches, either.
Oaktree is the Los Angeles-based investment firm that was once Tronc’s largest shareholder.
Kiewit, based in Nebraska, calls itself one of the largest construction and engineering companies in North America and Australia with bridge projects in San Francisco and highway projects in Hawaii.
OHL bills itself as an “international leader in the construction of hospitals and railways” as well as a “strategic developer of public-private projects.”
The company’s projects include a transit busway station in Los Angeles.
Meridiam is a global investor and asset manager based in Paris. Last year, the company announced that it had raised $1.2 billion to a fund dedicated to bankrolling “long-term investments in North American public infrastructure projects” with a particular focus on investing in “sustainable and climate-resilient assets.”
Meridiam’s projects include a tunnel at the Port of Miami, a passenger terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, California’s Presidio Parkway and a light rail project in Maryland.
JLC is an infrastructure fund launched last year by former NBA great Magic Johnson and Chicago’s Jim Reynolds, CEO of Loop Capital Markets. The fund has set aside “millions” to bankroll future projects and has already put its money behind construction of a new terminal at Denver International Airport.
Antartica Capital is a New-York-based global investment firm that targets infrastructure with a particular focus on “identifying investment opportunities that offer potential for operational value creation.”
Mott MacDonald served as design engineer for a terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport, for the United Kingdom’s largest court complex and for Mosaic Stadium, home of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Rough Riders.
The city has identified three possible routes, one of them terminating at the super-station under the Block 37 retail development. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley spent $200 million to build that station, only to have it sit empty.