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Elon Musk Wants to Dig a Tunnel from Downtown Chicago to O’Hare

City Gives Musk the OK to Proceed with Plans to Construct O'Hare Express Service Underground
June 14, 2018

Elon Musk is burrowing into Chicago. His fledgling infrastructure and tunnel construction firm, The Boring Company, has been chosen by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust to design, build, operate and maintain an innovative and badly needed underground O’Hare Express service that will transport passengers from downtown Chicago to O’Hare in 12 minutes. All on The Boring Co.'s dime.

“The Boring Co. aims to alleviate soul-destroying traffic by constructing safe, affordable and environmentally friendly public transportation systems,” the company said in a release on its website announcing it had been chosen for the estimated $1 billion project.

The Boring Co. will cover all the costs of the 18-mile system, which is expected to travel three to four times faster than any existing transportation system between downtown Chicago and O’Hare. In exchange, it will keep revenues from transit fees, advertisements, branding and in-vehicle sales.

There’s little question the trip from downtown Chicago to O’Hare, or vice versa, can be a transportation nightmare. On the Blue Line, an elevated train that is part of the “El” system, it runs 40 minutes, assuming there are no transit issues; in a car, it depends on the time of the day, but can run an hour-plus during rush hour, longer during inclement weather - a given in the winter months.

And it can be costly with taxi or ride-sharing services ticking up to $50 one way, again dependent on the time of day and weather. A ticket on the Blue Line is $5. The projected price on the Musk express is expected to cost $20 to $25 per ride, following the city’s requirement to slash costs by at least 50 percent of a car service.

Branded the Chicago Express Loop, The Boring Co. said it will provide “fast and convenient transportation” between Block 37, a three-building, mixed-use development in the heart of the Loop business district, and Terminals 1, 2 and 3 at O’Hare. Those are domestic terminals that hold the gates to legacy and discount airlines including United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, as well as a handful of foreign carriers.

Musk and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are scheduled to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon at a mothballed superstation built under Block 37. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune Wednesday night, Emanuel touted the project as the latest bold “transformative” innovation for Chicago, which has been at the forefront of American railroads and the aviation system.

“If you look at the history of Chicago,” he told the Tribune, “every time we’ve been an innovator in transportation, we have seized the future. I think figuring out - when time is money - how to shrink the distance between the economic and job engines of O’Hare and downtown, positions Chicago as the global leader and global city in the United States.”

That may prove to be true, but there are many hurdles to jump before anyone is zipping to O’Hare on a Musk-inspired high-speed express system. The Boring Co., which is named for its ability to bore underground tunnels half the size of regular tunnels for less money, is calling its system the Loop. That smacks of the Chicago moniker for the central business district and the El that encircles the area.

Rendering of Musk Loop vehicle.

Musk’s Loop is designed as an eight- to 16-passenger vehicle that uses autonomous electric skates that travel in a 14-foot diameter space at 125 to 150 miles per hour, according to the company. The electric skates engineering are based on the Tesla Model X. The battery-powered electric skates will be “mechanically confined” to a concrete track within the underground tunnel. The passenger spaces will be climate controlled with room for luggage and a Wi-Fi connection, the company said.

If this gets built - and there are a myriad of city approvals to get through yet - it will fulfill a long-time infrastructure dream of former Mayor Richard M. Daly, who envisioned a high-speed train like one he once rode in Shanghai. Emanuel picked up the mantle shortly after he won his second term in 2015.

At the same time, an endorsement for Musk from a city like Chicago could catapult his visionary status to yet another level. Still, it’s a big gamble for Chicago.

“We’re taking a bet on a guy who doesn’t like to fail,” Emanuel told the Tribune. “There are a bunch of Teslas on the road. He put SpaceX together. He’s proven something.

“The risk - with no financial risk - is I’m betting on a guy who has proven in space, auto and now a tunnel, that he can innovate and create something of the future,” Emanuel said. “Given his track record, we are taking his reputation and saying, ‘This is a guy in two other transportation modes who has not failed.’ That’s what we’re doing.”

Jennifer Waters, Chicago Reporter  CoStar Group   
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