Mayor Rahm Emanuel is advancing a ten year old plan to build an express train from the Loop to O’Hare Airport. The total cost of the endeavor is unknown, but Mayor Emanuel announced Wednesday that no taxpayer money will be used to achieve the city’s goal of shaving 20 minutes off commute times to its busiest airport.
“Express service to and from O’Hare will give Chicagoans and visitors to our great city more options, faster travel times, and build on Chicago’s competitive advantage as a global hub of tourism, transportation and trade,” said Mayor Emanuel in a release.
A 2006 report CTA commissioned on the feasibility of express train service to O’Hare determined Express Service would be “substantially more capital intensive than implementing the Direct Service.” It estimated the costs could surpass $1.5 billion.
The financing structure would be similar to how the city funds operations at its airports. Both O’Hare and Midway International Airport are financed through segregated enterprise accounts that are funded through fees and lease payments.
The O’Hare Express System (OES) Project would be “funded solely by project-specific revenues (like fares or advertising) and financed entirely by the concessionaire,” the press release explains.
Emanuel put the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT) in charge of finding a designer, contractor, and concessionaire to oversee the project. The public-private partnership (PPP) Emanuel created early in his first term to leverage private dollars for city construction was recently named as the lead collaborator on the new police and fire training academy planned for West Garfield Park. The City Council approved the necessary zoning changes and land purchase for the public safety academy earlier this month.
CIT issued a Request for Proposals (RFQ) Wednesday. A pre-submittal information session is scheduled for Dec. 20 at the Chicago Cultural Center in Millennium Park. RFQ responses are due Jan. 24, 2018.
In 2016, Chicago’s Department of Aviation began soliciting engineering firms to “analyze and develop conceptual designs as well as an overall timeline for the project.” At the time, it had received three proposals, but did not identify the firms. Previous project plans for an express train to O’Hare were unrealistic, the solicitation said, because they were reliant on existing, overly burdened rail-lines. CDA sought creative solutions to address those obstacles.
On a given day, some 20,000 commuters travel between O’Hare and downtown Chicago, according to city estimates. That number is expected to reach 35,000 by 2045.
The CTA’s Blue Line is the quickest transit option to the airport, a ride that can take between 45 minutes to an hour depending on train delays. And adding an express train on the Blue Line is an unlikely alternative. Chicago’s public transit system is one of the oldest in the country. Its parent agency, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), estimates the CTA will need about $20 billion just to cover maintenance.
Lack of a state capital budget and declining federal aid, coupled with decreased ridership, has put a financial strain on the CTA. This is why Emanuel had aldermen approve a modest increase on Uber and Lyft rides over the next two years. The additional $16 million generated from the hike will be handed over to the CTA, and independent agency with its own budget and voting board, in perpetuity.
CIT has worked with the CTA. In 2015 it partnered with T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon to bring 4G mobile data service to the city’s subways.
In 2012, with President Bill Clinton by his side, Mayor Emanuel unveiled the idea of creating a separate agency to finance costly “transformational infrastructure investments” through advantaged financing. The press release from that event explains the structure: “each project to customize a financing structure using taxable or tax-exempt debt, equity investments and other forms of support.”
Though the City Council approved the authorizing ordinance a month later, and a slew of board members throughout Emanuel’s two terms, most projects stalled.
CIT’s inaugural project, which Emanuel detailed at that press conference with President Clinton, took years to initiate. Retrofit Chicago, a plan to convert approximately 85% of the City’s lighting fixtures to LEDs, reduced its scope and is behind schedule.