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Is Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express System dead?

A rendering of an O’Hare Express System station as originally envisioned, with electric pods ferrying passengers. (Courtesy The Boring Company)

Fears that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, would quash Elon Musk’s $1 billion underground shuttle between the Loop and O’Hare International Airport arose around the February 26 election to replace Rahm Emanuel, and now evidence is mounting that the project may be dead.

It’s no secret that the O’Hare Express System was a pet project of Emanuel’s, and that Musk largely chose Chicago to test the first practical application of the Boring Company’s underground high-speed rail because of the permissive attitude towards new construction. Originally, the loop was pitched as a sealed tunnel that would rocket riders between Block 37 in the Loop to O’Hare in only 12 minutes, inside sealed pods riding on electrically-powered “skates.” The system was expected to move approximately 1,900 people per hour, and it was estimated that roundtrip tickets would cost $20 to $25; compare that to the Blue Line, which is able to move twice as many people an hour for only $5 a trip.

Then, in late May, Musk announced on Twitter that, actually, instead of using sleds, the Boring Company tunnels would let modified Tesla cars cruise through the narrow tunnels at speeds of up to a demonstrated 127 miles per hour. Besides further reducing the tunnel’s estimated carrying capacity and introducing the potential for bottlenecks, this also seems to go against the pledge Musk made in March of 2018 to use his traffic-bypassing tunnels for public transportation first and foremost.

Now, Mayor Lightfoot has admitted that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) may be forced to pay back the federal funding used to build a Block 37 transit station, as it isn’t being used for mass transit. The O’Hare Express System super-station would have sat below the Block 37 mixed-use project, but the site currently remains a large, unfinished basement.

The CTA issued $175 million in bonds, which were later paid for by the federal government, to develop the station. Still, Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times, “That doesn’t change my view of the Elon Musk project. The notion that he could do this without any city money is a total fantasy. And in thinking about what our transportation needs are, I’m not sure that an express train to O’Hare in the current proposal rises to the top of our list.”

However, the federal government hasn’t given the CTA a deadline for repaying the grants, and the site may still be used for another transportation-related purpose.

The Boring Company and Musk have been mum on the project since the election, but it’s hard to see how the O’Hare Express System can bounce back (and only a year after the deal was first announced). As former U.S. Transportation Secretary and Emanuel confidant Ray LaHood told the Chicago Sun-Times in March, “I’m not surprised at all. It’s very expensive. It’s complicated. The environmental impact statement that would have to be done on that will take years. And it would take a real commitment from a mayor to make it happen. I don’t see it happening.”

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