» Mayor Richard Daley hopes for a fully privately funded project connecting downtown with O’Hare Airport, but the city should be sure not to give away too much in the process.
Chicago, perhaps like no other city in the United States, has set itself apart as a center of trade, and recently that has been expressed in the growth of its two airports, O’Hare and Midway. With the resurgence of passenger rail promoted by the Obama Administration, it may be able to reassert its dominance in that field; it will sit at the confluence of three upgraded intercity rail lines already at least partially funded: One to St. Louis, another to Detroit, and a third to Milwaukee and Madison.
Now Mayor Richard Daley (D) is promoting a plan to connect the two modes of transportation via an express rail line between the Loop and O’Hare International. This is only the most recent in a long line of proposals designed to establish quick links between the airport and downtown; it is, perhaps fortunately, no more likely of success.
This week, Mr. Daley formed a 17-member exploratory committee to study options, arguing that private investors from around the world had suggested to him that they might be available to help finance the project. The Mayor promised that the municipal government would provide none of the funds for either construction of operation of the program, though he did not rule out the possibility of demanding state or federal dollars to aid in the investment. The new chair of the Regional Transportation Authority is likely on board, being a big supporter of public-private partnerships.
The previous plan for the express rail link, developed earlier this decade, would have included a “superstation” downtown also connected to the local rapid transit network where travelers could drop off bags before boarding trains. The expresses would run along upgraded Blue Line rapid transit tracks; the fast trains would use new bypass tracks to get around the slower-stopping local trains, providing a 25-minute ride between downtown and O’Hare Airport at a cost of between $15 and 20 dollars per rider. Rapid transit currently requires 40 minutes to make the trip. It is likely that any new project would follow similar principles, but the new committee has obviously yet to determine what plans it will advance. If any private investor is involved, changes are likely.
The superstation, located under the Block 37 project, has been partially constructed after a $250 million public investment. But the station is not completed and does not include track connections between the Red and Blue rapid transit lines, one of the primary goals of the project. Nor does it have the check-in facilities necessary to make the express service feasible at this time.
Mr. Daley’s impulse — to promote a new transportation project specifically without committing the public sector to financing its completion — certainly makes sense considering the city’s limited fiscal reserves and its other priorities, but it may also be unrealistic.
For one, reason puts in question the assumption that private investors would be willing to fund the capital costs of the airport line, no matter the cost customers may be asked to pay to ride along it. There are significant obstacles to putting the project into play, including the purchase of new trainsets; the construction of bypass tracks along an elevated line in dense urban neighborhoods; the expansion of an underground station downtown; and the possible need to create a new terminus station at O’Hare Airport. In other words, airport service of the type that’s been discussed before for Chicago would require several hundred million dollars — of somebody’s money.
Just as important, even if the project does move forward, Chicago has a responsibility to ensure that the new airport express service doesn’t intrude on the daily operations of Blue Line trains, which are arguably more important since they serve tens of thousands of riders a day. With bypass tracks, it would be technically possible to run both services on the same corridor, even as one is providing express operations and the other local ones. But ensuring the express nature of the airport trains without dedicated tracks for them would inevitably mean interrupting Blue Line operations. So even with a privately funded project, there is likely to be some loss in terms of efficiency for the publicly funded rapid transit service. That’s a problem.
Moreover, as Toronto’s recent difficulties with its own airport project demonstrate, investors looking to invest in infrastructure like public transportation may want continuous, year-to-year subsidies even just to pay for operations. Chicago certainly isn’t looking to commit to anything like that.
Image above: Chicago O’Hare International Airport Rail Station, from Flickr user ono-sendai (cc)