City seeking parties to fund, build, operate O'Hare express train

Wednesday, 29 November 2017, 05:02:09 AM. The goal is to deliver express service that would whisk travelers between downtown and O’Hare in 20 minutes or less, cutting travel times in half.

Nine months after vowing to forge ahead with a high-speed rail line between downtown and O’Hare Airport in his second term, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is finally taking his first concrete step to make that elusive dream a reality.

The mayor and his slow-starting Chicago Infrastructure Trust are issuing a request for qualifications aimed at identifying teams interested in designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining an express train to O’Hare in partnership with the city.

The goal is to deliver express service that would whisk travelers between downtown and O’Hare in “20 minutes or less,” cutting travel times in half.

The city and the Chicago Infrastructure Trust will consider “potential corridors that are above or below surface level” to deliver express service “at least every 15 minutes for the majority of the day” for fares “less than” the cost of a taxicab or Uber ride to O’Hare.

“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,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.

Pointing to Daniel Burnham’s call to “make no little plans,” Emanuel said, “Strengthening connections between the economic engines of downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport, at no cost to taxpayers, will build on Chicago’s legacy of innovation and pay dividends for generations to come.”

The request for qualifications follows an analysis conducted by a working group created by the mayor last year to determine the feasibility of a project that has eluded Chicago mayors for decades.

According to the mayor’s office, the unidentified group studied “demand for ridership, potential terminal locations as well as possible routes and alignments.”

The next step in the process is to determine “private sector interest in construction and operation,” the press release states. Interested bidders must include a downtown station, an O’Hare station and one maintenance facility.

Proposals must address “how potential conflicts or impacts on existing transportation systems and the environment would be avoided or minimized.”

Although the overall price tag for the system is not yet known, taxpayer support is off-limits. The RFQ stipulates that O’Hare express service will be bankrolled “entirely by the concessionaire” and funded “solely by project-specific revenues” including fares or advertising.

City Treasurer Kurt Summers, chairman of the Infrastructure Trust, said “O’Hare Express” is just the kind of “transformative project” the Trust was created to pursue.

The project is “perfectly suited to our purpose to act as a specialized resource to the city focused on infrastructure financing and development,” Summers was quoted as saying.

Responses are due on Jan. 24. The city and the Infrastructure Trust then intend to select one or more “most qualified” respondents to proceed to the request-for-proposal phase.

Conspicuously absent from the city’s press release is any mention of the trip top mayoral aides took to Los Angeles a few months ago to talk to visionary billionaire Elon Musk about Musk’s Jetsons-like plan to build tunnels to house high-speed rail.

“The Musk idea is a really intriguing one. It remains to be seen whether it’s workable for us,” former deputy mayor Steve Koch told the Chicago Sun-Times before retiring in July.

Earlier this year, Emanuel appeared gung-ho on the Musk technology.

“The opportunity for Chicago is endless and boundless. … It would be a tremendous investment, job creator and economic engine for the city that would pay dividends for decades ahead,” Emanuel said then.

“They are very interested. And we’re gonna have ’em now out to the city to explore further what we are doing and planning to see whether the tunnel approach is an alternative to the ones we’ve been discussing.”

The O’Hare express project has been an elusive dream of Chicago mayors for decades.

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 $200 million Block 37 super-station.

It never happened, leaving the underground station looking like little more than an unfinished basement.

Emanuel has vowed to steer clear of the Block 37 station.

Engineering and design giant WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff was chosen to identify potential routes, develop a cost estimate, and pinpoint the location of downtown and airport stations, under terms of a $2 million contract awarded last year.

City Hall also retained Bob Rivkin, former general counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation, to provide “legal expertise in identifying a clear path forward and working with potential partners.”

Rivkin was subsequently chosen to replace Koch as deputy mayor.

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