Emanuel O'Hare express train a fast, expensive trip back to Daley era

The naysayers would have us believe that nothing good would ever come of Chicago devoting resources to building an expensive express train from downtown to O'Hare.

There is, however, at least one undeniable benefit for residents and businesses here should Mayor Rahm Emanuel succeed in making this boondoggle a reality: We all could leave town faster.

So there is that. Try to be a little more positive. Mayor Emanuel just wants us to feel good about Chicago again. Shut up and be grateful, OK?

Sure, we already have the Blue Line train to O'Hare. The city doesn't have enough money to fund some more immediate and critical needs, and there's all the negative news associated of late with Chicago, threatening to scare off would-be newcomers and making those already here uneasy.

But it's those very real problems that the mayor is trying to take everyone's minds off of by bringing this express train concept back from the dead.

Come on, admit it. You want to pretend we have money to throw around on fanciful projects we don't really need, just like the good old days. Remember when the city talked about hosting the 2016 Olympics as something it wanted, could afford and should do?

Takes you back.

It was so much simpler when Mayor Richard M. Daley was in charge.

Back then, it seemed as if bills would never have to be paid. In a worst-case scenario, the city could always sell something like its parking meters or the Chicago Skyway to private businesses sure to stupidly overpay, then coast for years on the proceeds.

That was the idea anyway.

Given the amount of time Mayor Emanuel has had to devote to digging out from the financial commitments his predecessor left behind, it's mildly surprising that he would unbury a project Daley actually deemed too costly and abandoned a decade ago after $100 million in cost overruns.

We're still on the hook until 2028 for the work that was done on a Loop superstation at a cost of about $400 million, by one tally. Future archaeologists will love it.

The Red Line station at Washington and State never reopened, and the latest proposal also doesn't build on that, even to learn from the mistake.

But what a conversation starter.

Forget about the schools, police, pensions, taxes. Let's talk supertrain.

The idea is it would take travelers between downtown and O'Hare in 20 minutes or so for maybe $30 or $35, which is less than a cab or Uber ride but a lot more than the current CTA fare for a train that takes twice as long.

An argument is that businesspeople traveling on expense accounts won't take the Blue Line because it's not fancy enough but would take something on which they can be more productive. How productive they can and choose to be in 20 minutes remains to be seen.

The upside for everyday Chicagoans, who would undoubtedly prefer seeing more money invested in the existing CTA and Metra networks, is even less certain.

Even if private investors paid to construct and operate the train line without subsidies — a big if — it's expected that taxpayer money would be needed to build the requisite stations.

It's not as though the supposedly painless hotel, amusement and parking taxes typically tagged for big projects in this city can bear to go much higher.

Tourists, business travelers and conventions have a role to play in the financial health of Chicago and its surrounding communities. Admittedly, talking about pressing needs is a bit of a knee-jerk response intended to discourage spending on projects that fulfill needs that may not be readily apparent yet.

The return on investment here is hard to see, however.

How many more people will fly into O'Hare because of an express train? Will it even make a dent in rush-hour Kennedy Expressway traffic? What impact would it have on the continued existence of the far cheaper, if less fancy Blue Line?

As a distraction from all that bedevils Chicago at the moment, Mayor Emanuel's airport express train is fine. It becomes far less cost-effective with every dollar devoted to making it a reality. If ground is broken, you may want to start packing for a long trip of your own — one way.

[email protected]

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

Copyright © 2018, Chicago Tribune
A version of this article appeared in print on February 17, 2016, in the Business section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline "O'Hare express train costly trip back to Daley era" — | Subscribe
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