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Daley Off the Rails on O’Hare Fast-Train Idea?

The result of Mayor Daley’s last attempt to link fast trains to Chicago airports? One fewer Loop ‘L’ station.

Another year another dangerous Daley fast-airport-train plan? This week, the Chicago Tribune reported outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley thinks Chicago should build a high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) train between the Loop and O’Hare Airport. Why? Because he rode Shanghai’s airport maglev train on a recent trip to China and liked it.

Whoosh!

While I’d certainly love to take a 268 mile-per-hour trip from Terminal One to State and Madison, I think it’s important for Windy Citizens to remember Daley’s mixed track record of coming home from the hinterland (read: the rest of the world) with one idea or another he’s just revving to unroll in Chicago. Our bus-stop shelters, bike lanes, and municipal green roofs were all inspired by the experience of other cities. All wonderful ideas, to be sure, but they haven’t been unmitigated successes. The bus-stop shelters don’t adequately protect from the elements. Many bike lanes have been tacked onto major thoroughfares where they just don’t fit (see especially: Milwaukee Avenue.) City Hall’s green roof isn’t publicly accessible.

Most importantly though…how about the spectacular and very recent failure of Daley’s last attempt to adopt a fast-train airport plan? Last year I summed up that debacle in a link-laden post here on Carless. The basics:

  • In 2005 the mayor decreed an underground superstation for trains to O’Hare and Midway airports be built during the (re-)construction of the Loop’s Block 37, to run European-style fast-train service (see: #themayorwentonvacation);
  • The project required the temporary closure of downtown’s busy Washington/State Red Line ‘L’ station and of the equally busy customer transfer tunnel between the Red and Blue line Washington stations;
  • Unanticipated engineering difficulties and Block 37 construction delays ballooned the cost of the project to more than $300 million–including a $100 million overrun in June 2008, alone;
  • The project was shelved, incomplete, when the city ran out of money due to the overruns–without a backup plan to restore Washington/State or the transfer tunnel;
  • In winter 2009, the CTA quietly demapped Washington/State from the ‘L’ system;
  • The Washington/State ‘L’ station and transfer tunnel remain closed–because the CTA cannot afford to recommission them thanks to the damage done to physical infrastructure by the failed superstation project.

So after spending $300 million, instead of getting fast-train service to O’Hare, Chicago actually ended up with less access to rail service than before the airport superstation project. And that was that. No mea culpa from the mayor’s office. No plan to return Washington/State to service by the CTA. Just a quiet cover-up of a massive mayoral blunder that cost Chicago much more than it should have.

These are the kind of clandestine, face-saving politics that will hopefully end with Daley’s successor. The idea that a mess like this doesn’t get discussed publicly because a city is afraid of angering its mayor is frightening to non-Illinois sensibilities (like mine), and damaging both to the public’s trust in government and its belief that government might actually work to protect the best interests of the public (as it is supposed to) instead of the best interests of politicians.

Given all of that, the idea that any newspaper in town–or any Chicagoan, for that matter–should take Daley seriously on another, grander, surely far more expensive airport fast-train plan is patently ludicrous. Yet, amazingly, the Trib’s recent maglev article doesn’t include a single word about the the failed Block 37 superstation project. (Follow the link at the top of this post and see for yourself.) Sidebars don’t count–they’re easily ignored. This should be a central part of the debate. Not addressing the Block 37 superstation in the main article is not an editorial decision I can fathom.

Chicagoans writing about this week’s airport-train debate shouldn’t be asking, “Gee, is this a good idea?” They should be asking, “Richie, where’s our last $300 million?”

Not to mention our ‘L’ station.

Categories: Chicago Transit Authority Politics

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

6 replies

  1. This is one of the silliest ideas the Mayor has had. If we plan to spend that kind of mad money, why not do it where it can make a difference? How about the Red Line extension to Pullman? The now forgotten Circle Line? Express bus lanes on major routes like Chicago Avenue.

    Thinking logically, just the right of way to build the Maglev would run into the billions. With that kind of money, why not just invest in super fast space ships to get us to the airport.

  2. My favorite part of that article was a quote by Richard Rodriguez discussing a crosstown rail line: “Why not look at a monorail or some other system that would basically avoid the congestion on the streets?”

    Seriously, a monorail? That technology was written-off decades ago as unpractical for anything more than a cheesy tourist ride. But I guess such a misguided suggestion is expected from a transit president with no transit experience.

    1. Kevin, I missed that. I’ve been critical of Rodriguez before, sometimes unfairly. But that is ignorant. Any transit professional knows the higher cost and punishing operational difficulties that monorail ideas would entail–hence few of those ideas ever getting (ahem) off the ground. Hopefully, our next mayor will put actual industry professionals in key posts (CTA, CPS) and not simply cronies.

    1. Thank you, Scott. My intention isn’t to berate the Trib–or mayor, for that matter. My point is we have a right to have municipal discussions about about things that affect the public fisc–and when those financial effects are great, discussion should be comprehensive, not self-censored.

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