Emanuel takes next step toward O'Hare express train

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking another step in his plan to build an express train from downtown to O'Hare International Airport by putting out a government version of a casting call.

The city on Wednesday will issue a Request for Qualifications, or RFQ, for respondents to offer their credentials to design, build, finance, operate and maintain an express service through a public-private partnership with Chicago.

The express train is one of the mayor’s transportation priorities — this year, he set a three-year goal to start building high-speed service to O’Hare, but it is unclear how it would get done.

The cost of the project is unknown, although an industry source familiar with the planning has said it could run between $1 billion and $3 billion. The RFQ stipulates that there would no taxpayer funding and that the service would be paid for only by project-specific revenues, such as fares and advertising, and financed by whoever gets the concession, according to a news release from the mayor’s office.

The project has long seemed like a pipe dream. More than a decade ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley pictured the Block 37 shopping center on top of a high-speed rail station. The CTA and the city put more than $250 million into a hole in the ground before work stopped in 2008.

Emanuel officials and some transportation experts say the city needs express service to its biggest airport in order to be competitive in the world travel market. The CTA already offers rapid transit to O’Hare, though the imagined express service would be about twice as fast.

“Express service to and from O’Hare will give Chicagoans and visitors to our great city more options, faster travel time, and build on Chicago’s competitive advantage as a global hub of tourism, transportation and trade,” Emanuel said in a statement.

Earlier this year, the city hired Bob Rivkin, a former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation, who led the effort to study demand for ridership and potential terminal locations as well as possible routes and alignments.

In an interview, Rivkin — deputy mayor — said the city set out in its RFQ three potential routes, though it is not limiting respondents to those routes. One would follow the current Blue Line route along the Kennedy Expressway; another could be along the Metra North Central route; and the third could be a combination of freight rail rights of way that would go west from downtown south of the Eisenhower Expressway out to Forest Park, and then turn north toward O’Hare.

The RFQ was issued by both the city and the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which Emanuel created to spearhead public-private partnerships. The RFQ specifies that the express service should include a downtown station, an O’Hare station and one maintenance facility.

Under the terms of the request, the service should have travel times of 20 minutes or less with a reliable service frequency of at least every 15 minutes for most of the day with “premium” fares that cost less than the cost of current taxi and ride-hailing services.

The concept is supposed to appeal to busy travelers who want a quick trip, do not want to ride the CTA and would be willing to pay more than an “L” ride for the privilege — possibly $25 or more. Similar express trains operate in Toronto, Hong Kong, London and Tokyo.

Any proposal must also address how to handle potential conflicts or impacts on existing transportation systems and the environment, the city said.

The city will consider potential routes above or below surface level, it said in a news release. This past summer, Emanuel talked with entrepreneur Elon Musk about the possibility of the technology investor using a high-tech digger to bore out an underground high-speed rail line.

Rivkin said he would rather not talk about any individual potential investor. He said the city hopes Musk or any of his companies would be interested, and there are also competitors who might be interested.

Responses to the RFQ are due Jan. 24, the city said. The city and the Infrastructure Trust will select one or more respondents they consider most qualified to respond to a subsequent Request for Proposals.

Asked when the project could begin, Rivkin said it depends on the responses it gets back.

“We would not be doing this unless we thought we could make it happen,” he said.

The local Chamber of Commerce said an express airport train is “something that would help people traveling in and out of Chicago on business.”

“This ambitious project not only makes us more competitive as a world-class city, but at no cost to the taxpayer.” Michael Reever, acting president & CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce is quoted as saying in a news release. He said the project “will only strengthen O’Hare’s position as our city’s economic crown jewel.”

[email protected]

Twitter @marywizchicago

Emanuel boosts O'Hare express train, but future foggy »

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Emanuel tries to resurrect O'Hare express train plan »

Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune
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