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Can Elon Musk Bring High-Speed Rail To Chicago?

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel this week resurrected the idea of a high-speed rail system from downtown to O’Hare International Airport, a lofty goal that remained out of reach to his predecessor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who sunk $200 million into building a downtown station that never opened.

Can Emanuel succeed where Daley couldn’t? The city is accepting proposals from developers, and billionaire inventor Elon Musk said he plans on bidding for the project.

Musk, who has been sharing his idea for an underground “hyperloop” high-speed rail system since 2013, tweeted Wednesday that his The Boring Co.  “will compete to fund, build & operate a high-speed Loop connecting Chicago O’Hare Airport to downtown.”

High-speed rail proponents like Joe Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, are advocating for a system that would make Chicago a competitive transportation hub that rivals other global cities.

“You look at Toronto, Oslo, London, and Paris and they all have great lengths to the airport where you can get off a train, step through security, and get on a flight. And it’s sort of a seamless system,” Schwieterman said Thursday on Morning Shift. “In Chicago, you have the Blue Line, but it’s a multistop commute that’s not quite up to the level that most global cities want. I think the mayor wants to get in that game.”

Schwieterman, who’s a board member of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which advocates for more high-speed trains across the country, joined Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to discuss what a high-speed rail system would look like in Chicago and its effect on the city.

On what a high-speed rail system could look like

Joe Schwieterman: The real debate is what we do, whether we go with more of a rapid transit-style system. The system that Mayor Daley envisioned years ago would add passing tracks to the Blue Line that would allow slow trains to be bypassed by fast trains. And the engineers say that can be done without enormous expense, but it would be complicated because you’d probably have to adjust some traffic on the Kennedy expressway, and that certainly makes it a big project.

Other people, like the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, really want to see kind of an axis through town where trains would come all the way across the city. People could get off a train at O’Hare, and then shoot downtown, or to McCormick Place, or Hyde Park, or even all the way to Indianapolis on long-distance trains. And something like this really could be the backbone for that. So one of the ideas is taking the metra corridor and using that.

On how it could affect commuters

Schwieterman: The obvious fear is that it will take resources from everyday transit needs — and there is always that risk because these things can go over budget. But, the mayor bent over backwards Wednesday to say that no taxpayer money would be used. We’re wondering if the project is realistic without any public funding, but the hope is that we build O’Hare as a sort of multimobility machine, where people coming from all around the Midwest can get there easily. It builds O’Hare and it builds the economy. But there will have to be assurances that the CTA isn’t going to starve because of this.

My understanding is that in most cities around the world — like looking at the Heathrow Express in London, which is probably the best example of what Chicago would look like — it does take real public leadership.

Elon Musk’s ‘hyperloop’ concept

A sled speeds down a track during a test of a Hyperloop One propulsion system, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, in North Las Vegas, Nev. in the first public demonstration of technology for a super-speed, tube based transportation system. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Schwieterman: The concept there is almost like a high-tech people-mover system where you would use a machine that would burrow a narrow underground tunnel with computer-driven burrowing machines.

The thought was you can avoid having to relocate buildings and homes, and lots of complex relocation utility, by just digging deep and putting in a tubular type infrastructure that would allow trains to just zip to O’Hare in these pods that could get people there in 10 minutes or so. There’s a lot of hype in that, but it’s not yet been demonstrated worldwide.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by producer Arionne Nettles.

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