» A long-held plan for quick connections to Midway and O’Hare, delayed indefinitely, is a reflection of poor thinking at City Hall and its transit authority.
“I would support premium rail service only if it brought significant new operating dollars, capital funding, or other efficiencies to CTA,” wrote Carole Brown, then Chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority, in October 2006. “I should note that I’m not at all interested in non-express ‘direct’ service absent a viable plan to do real express service.”
After spending $250 million on a new “superstation” under the Block 37 development, the City of Chicago is left with neither the express service Brown desired, nor even the ‘direct’ service she feared. CTA does not dispose of a track connection between Red and Blue subway lines, one of the primary goals of the project. Rather, it has a mothballed station that isn’t ready for any use, let alone express trains to the region’s airports. A recent news report from CBS2 raises questions about whether the city is attempting to hide the evidence that it has built anything at all.
Local observers point to the “curse” of Block 37, arguing that the failure of the city to get the station up and running was somehow a result of fate. The overall complex, which has been in planning for decades, will open this fall with office space and 60 retailers, but the developer suffered a major defeat last month when the Loews chain decided not to build a hotel on the site, despite being handed the building plot in the core of the downtown Loop for one dollar.
But the failure of Block 37 and the affiliated superstation is no matter of fate — it is a reflection of misplaced priorities at Chicago City Hall and a poor response to the market. Mayor Richard Daley encouraged the developer to move forward with the dual objectives of building a tower on the city’s last major available downtown parcel and of linking the city center more quickly to airports. The first idea will come to partial realization later this year, though its stature has been dimmed significantly by the failure of the real estate market in Chicago, like almost everywhere.
The airport connection, however, never seemed fully thought out. Today, commuters can travel from the Clark/Lake Station downtown to O’Hare Airport in 40 minutes on the Blue Line or to Midway Airport in 30 minutes on the Orange Line; either trip costs just $2.25. Though the city’s connections between its airport rail stations and passenger terminals are not ideal, service is reliable and well-used. By 2008, the city was proposing that a private entity operate the new express link from Block 37 to O’Hare and Midway; the trip would take just 15 minutes less than existing service, but cost an outrageous $17. Check-in counters would be available in the basement of the Block 37 facility, allowing commuters to rid themselves of their bags downtown. The airport express trains would travel along existing heavy rail tracks shared with the Blue and Orange Lines.
Even if the idea had some validity — Chicago’s airports attract a number of business travelers who might be interested in the faster service — CTA was never prepared to provide the tracks for express trains. There was some discussion a few years back about adding tracks along the Blue Line that would allow express trains to bypass locals, but no money was ever provided. Carole Brown’s vision of using the airport link as a motivator to attract more funding to aid CTA operate more banal services fell flat. As happens with many airport-connector projects, the project morphed from a “money-maker” to a strain on the rest of the system, $100 million over initial cost estimates, too expensive for the city to continue construction.
Mayor Daley reacted to the news in 2008 that the project would have to be delayed indefinitely by stating that “You can’t build a station without changing the technology. I told them they had to stop. … It’s not going to be fit for the technology of this century. That’s one of the reasons we held it up.” It’s unclear what technological limitations Mr. Daley was referring to, because the primary problem here was far more simple: the city had never allocated the money to improve the mainline track on the Blue and Orange Lines in parallel with the construction of the superstation.
What private operator would agree to run a subway from the Loop to one of the airports if it had to run behind regular Blue Line trains and operate on their schedule?
There were other alternatives if airport access was one of the city’s main priorities: existing Metra commuter rail tracks run directly from downtown; buying DMU rail cars and building surface-level stations near the airports would have cost a lot less than the halfhearted attempt to construct a massive underground terminal in the heart of the city. Those trains would have probably been faster than even the dead-on-arrival express service using existing CTA tracks.
Why was the airport link considered so important by the city’s planners? Was the new facility worth $300 million in construction costs, even if it had become operational? The money certainly could have gone elsewhere. CTA has a number of other projects in construction and planning, including the elimination of slow zones throughout the system, the Circle Line, and three extensions of existing lines. Chicago may well have lost out on its attempt to win the 2016 Olympics because of the deficiencies in its local transit offerings, not necessarily its airport access, which is acceptable.
Before it can invest in under-performing extravagances like better links to O’Hare and Midway, CTA demands an infusion of cash to fulfill basic needs. The ill-conceived superstation that will not be used for years should have never been a priority.