High Speed, High Stakes

Elon Musk's high-speed Chicago rail project could hinge on the mayoral election

A rendering of what the O'Hare International Airport station could look like (Courtesy The Boring Company)

Elon Musk’s plan to dig 18-mile-long underground tunnels between Chicago’s Loop and O’Hare International Airport was never a done deal, and after the February 26 mayoral election to replace Rahm Emanuel, the project may never be realized.

On the surface, Musk’s pledge to fund the $1 billion high-speed train system through the Boring Company at no cost to the city seems like a win-win, but as a new report from The Verge revealed, momentum may be building against the O’Hare Express System. With Mayor Emanuel on his way out, his pet project might not survive.

As the Verge noted, Emanuel hasn’t used his veto power once in his nine-year tenure as mayor, and Musk had chosen Chicago for the first practical application of Boring Company technology thanks to the permissive regulatory atmosphere. The plan went public in June last year, but no firm details on what the city has agreed on have come out yet and at least one lawsuit has already been filed to release any public records.

It appears that public communication on the project has gone silent, and an official contract between the Boring Company and nonprofit Chicago Infrastructure Trust—a body created to facilitate public-private partnership projects—has yet to materialize. The Boring Company can’t sign a contract with the city until a National Environmental Policy Act review is complete, but the review can’t commence unless the Boring Company releases concrete project details.

Rendering of a sci-fi transit pot

A rendering of what a transport pod in the high-speed rail system could look like. The tunnels would be dug 30-to-60 feet deep and would hold up to 16 passengers. (Courtesy The Boring Company)

The tunneling company may be laying low until after the election. Other than the mayor’s departure, the city council has been hit with a set of scandals that have made it reluctant to vote on new projects. Alderman Ed Burke was arrested in an FBI raid last month on charges of extortion—a raid made possible thanks to fellow alderman Danny Solis, who wore a wire for two years as part of the investigation. Now, Solis is retiring and refusing to vote on any development in his district until his replacement is elected, meaning that the council is down two members who have historically voted in lockstep with Mayor Emanuel.

Of the 15 candidates on the ballot for mayor, many of them appear opposed to the high-speed rail line. The project was a point of contention at a candidate forum earlier this month, and many of the surveyed mayoral hopefuls told the Chicago Tribune that they would consider quashing the tunnel. Only candidate Bill Daley provided support for the rail tunnel, and even that was measured, as he called for a thorough evaluation of the project’s cost.

Many of the concerns were about the untested nature of the technology being used, as the Boring Company has only completed one test tunnel thus far, as well as cost and density concerns. While electrically-powered shuttles would be able to move people downtown at 150-miles-per-hour and cut transit times from Block 37 in the Loop to O’Hare to only 12 minutes, the system would only be capable of moving 1,900 people per hour. Tickets could cost up to $25. For comparison, the Blue Line is able to move twice as many people per hour along that same route for only $5.

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