Mayor Rahm Emanuel is forging ahead with plans to provide high-speed rail service between downtown and O’Hare International Airport, but steering clear of the Block 37 super-station his predecessor spent $200 million to build.
“There are a couple of alternative routes we believe have merit. I’m not at liberty to discuss them. But we have determined fairly clearly that Block 37 is not a feasible terminus,” Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said Friday.
“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.”
Emanuel has characterized high-speed rail from downtown to O’Hare as an economic “game changer” and a must for an international city.
Now, he’s turning that talk into action in hopes of delivering progress on the project during a second term and coordinating it with O’Hare’s ongoing gate expansion and terminal remodeling.
Next week, Evans will ask a “world-class engineering firm very knowledgeable about airport transit systems” to spend the next 10 months analyzing alternative routes, developing conceptual designs and finalizing a cost estimate and construction timeline.
That study will 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 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 to take 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 lap top. 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.
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 the Block 37 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.
During an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times that preceded his second inauguration, Emanuel was asked whether he planned to launch O’Hare express service from that “expensive hole in the ground at Block 37” or whether he would search for other ways to pull it off.
“There’s one other way,” the mayor said then.
Now, City Hall is acknowledging that the previous focus on launching express service to O’Hare “using existing, heavily utilized rail stations” was a mistake that “prevented the plans from being feasible.”
The Emanuel administration hopes to negotiate with “relevant stakeholders” this year and award a final contract for “design, construction and financing” in 2017. The goal is to build and operate the project without any contribution from beleaguered Chicago taxpayers.
Evans has called the project a prime candidate for a so-called federal “TIFIA” loan reserved for projects of national significance that couldn’t be built otherwise.
Chicago got similar loans to complete the downtown Riverwalk and to upgrade the O’Hare people mover system, doubling the system’s capacity and completing a 2,000-foot track extension to a new consolidated rental car facility.
Daley envisioned allowing business travelers to check their luggage at the Block 37 super-station so they wouldn’t have to worry about it again until baggage claim at their destination.
But, Evans said Friday that luggage racks on board express trains to O’Hare look like a more viable option.
“An ideal situation would be to check your luggage. It’s something everyone wants. It’s been studied for a couple of decades. We’ll look at it. But it’s labor intensive. It would add to the cost,” she said.