Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to resurrect Chicago's long-elusive plan for an express train from downtown to O'Hare International Airport by hiring an engineering firm to look at possible routes and costs.
It's a preliminary step, and the Emanuel administration isn't sure who would pay for the massive project, which could run into the billions of dollars.
Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said Friday the city will look for a private company to cover construction costs and operate the system, but it's likely public money would go into building stations at the airport and downtown if the project moves ahead. There also might be one other station along the line, she said, if it looks like an opportunity exists somewhere between downtown and the airport to spur development and increase ridership. Evans would not offer any guarantee that additional tax money wouldn't be needed for the project.
While Evans wouldn't talk about specific routes the train could take, she said there are "underutilized assets" that provide several possibilities. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley talked about the idea of 20-minute O'Hare express service since the early 1990s, and previous proposals have featured bypass tracks on the CTA Blue Line that run down the middle of the Kennedy Expressway as well as use of a Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way near the Kennedy.
Last spring, Emanuel talked about express rail service being part of his agenda at the start of his second term. But that was back when he was free to concentrate on big legacy ideas. Now, he's mired in controversies involving police shootings in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, and the precarious financial situation the city and Chicago Public Schools face has became more dire thanks in part to the protracted state budget standoff in Springfield.
Evans declined to say how much the 10 months of engineering work would cost, saying "that will be the subject of negotiations." The aim, she said, is to finish the engineering and present potential investors with a route for the express train and fairly detailed station plans, then put it out for bid in 2017.
If an express train does get built, one-time tickets would likely cost about $30 or $35, with many of those passes purchased by business travelers and tourists, she said. Less expensive monthly passes and family discounts also might be available, she said.
Evans was asked if Chicagoans might be resentful of such a big-ticket project focused on serving out-of-towners at a time the city faces many fundamental problems, and the long-discussed extension of the CTA Red Line south of 95th Street remains on the drawing board.
"Chicagoans will see the benefits, in increased tourism and business travel and the tax revenue that brings" if the express train gets built, Evans said.
Speaking to WLS-AM 890 reporter Bill Cameron in an interview that will air at 7 p.m. Sunday, Emanuel wouldn't say who would be likely to foot the bill to build and operate the express rail system.
"We've done some original work, in-house studies, and we think this is viable not only economically but engineering and otherwise," the mayor said.
Pressed by Cameron on whether Chinese investors might be involved, as Daley discussed, Emanuel demurred. "I'm not going to go there," he said.
The project was a white whale of sorts for Daley, who became enamored of an express train he took in Shanghai on one of his many trips to China and impaneled an "express rail committee" of business leaders to look into building one here. At one point, Daley envisioned the Block 37 shopping center near City Hall as sitting atop an express train station that would whisk business travelers and tourists to and from the airport.
Block 37 is off the table as the downtown terminal, Evans said, citing "technical concerns" brought to her attention in a recent meeting by representatives of the CTA and other regional travel agencies. The downtown station for the express line might be built in a "high-growth neighborhood" such as the West Loop or River North, Evans said.
Though Daley was unable to achieve liftoff on the express-rail concept, Evans said she's "bullish" on the chances for success this time in part because there's a lot of private equity money "sitting on the sidelines" and investors are interested in getting in on the ground floor of this type of project in the U.S.