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Express Rail to O'Hare: Can P3 succeed where Others failed?

Express Rail To O'Hare: Can P3 Succeed Where Others Failed?

Uphill climb: In April 2014, this CTA train actually jumped onto the UP escalator at O'Hare. Luckily, no one was hurt, but commuters still are searching for faster delivery times from downtown to one of the nation's busiest airports.

Uphill climb: In April 2014, this CTA train actually jumped onto the UP escalator at O'Hare. Luckily, no one was hurt, but commuters still are searching for faster delivery times from downtown to one of the nation's busiest airports.

by JOHN GREGERSON | Feb 18, 2016

In another sign of the times for financially strapped Illinois, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) says he will seek private investment to fund much of a proposed high-speed rail "express line" that would connect downtown to O'Hare International Airport. The proposal emerged just days after IL Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) also proposed executing a public-private partnership (P3) to fund a $450-million plan to widen Chicago's highly congested Adlai E. Stevenson Expressway.

Ginger Evans

Ginger Evans

The Chicago Dept. of Aviation's (CDA) new Commissioner Ginger Evans -- who oversaw construction of the new Denver International Airport some 22 years ago -- said last week that the city would seek a private investor to develop and operate the rail system. Still, public funding may be required to finance accompanying stations downtown and at O'Hare, itself, she noted.

An express rail line linking the two has been on Emanuel's “to do” since last spring, though the concept originated in the early 1990s, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed constructing a 20-minute express service. Daley, himself, resurrected the concept in 2010, assembling a committee to study the plan, but left office a year later.

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It's unclear the route the express line would take, though Evans indicated “unused assets” present potential avenues of travel. Since 1983, a 14.6-mile commuter rail line operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has extended between downtown and O'Hare, with portions of the line straddling inbound and outbound lanes of the John F. Kennedy Expressway, aka Interstate 90. Travel times between O'Hare and downtown on the so-called Blue Line average about 45 minutes. One plan proposed during the Daley administration would have located high-speed bypass tracks on the Blue Line while incorporating a nearby right of way

At present, CDA plans to hire an engineering firm to perform 10 months of design work for the high-speed project, the results of which the city plans to shop to potential investors. Assuming all goes as planned, CDA would put the project out for bid in 2017. Early cost estimates are in the billions.

Congested & contested: It is still not clear which route the proposed express line would follow to O'Hare.

Congested & contested: It is still not clear which route the proposed express line would follow to O'Hare.

CDA anticipates the line primarily would appeal to business travelers and tourists, though both groups may be confronted by sticker shock. According to some estimates, one-time ticket sales would cost up to $30 to $35. However, less costly monthly and family fares are potential options.

Fare structure is something potential investors will be keenly interested in and are sure to spend much time evaluating. After all, most P3 deals involving transportation projects depend on high levels of ridership for investors to recoup their investments. If the costs prove prohibitive here, Chicago's vision of itself as a Global City will be vexed, at least temporarily. Like Mayor Daley, his predecessor, Mayor Emmanuel also is quick to note that London, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo all have had high-speed rail lines in place for years.

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