How Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express Got The Fast Track In Chicago

An illustration of a road with one of Elon Musk’s proposed vehicles speeding along it
Photo illustration by Paula Friedrich/WBEZ
An illustration of a road with one of Elon Musk’s proposed vehicles speeding along it
Photo illustration by Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

How Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express Got The Fast Track In Chicago

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Underneath the popular Block 37 shopping complex in downtown Chicago is a partially finished, unused train station. There are no turnstyles or escalators, just an elevator and a few rectangular openings in the ground.

Aldermen approved the “super station” with little discussion in 2005, but it was mothballed before completion. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted it to be the base for express train service to both Chicago airports.

Thirteen years later, with taxpayers still paying off the loan that financed the $218 million station, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has found somebody to fulfill those high-speed dreams: entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Musk said his plan, known as the O’Hare Express, is to build a speedy pod that will shoot through an underground tunnel to get riders between Downtown and O’Hare International Airport in just 12 minutes. Officials said Emanuel and Musk hope to start digging as soon as this fall. But can they fulfill these promises?

“One of the great things about Chicago is that the number of approving authorities is small,” said Musk, who had similar plans stall in other places. “There’s clear authority in terms of getting approvals for various things.”

In other words, a man looking for a fast track to build an even faster transit tunnel found a place where the politics allowed him to do just that — Chicago.

Here’s a look at how Chicago’s mayor fast-tracked the express transit to the airport and why that matters to taxpayers, Musk, and the future of express transit elsewhere.

Is the O’Hare Express even necessary?

Musk’s journey to the ghost station started in 2017 after the Chicago Infrastructure Trust — a quasi-governmental agency made up of city officials and business leaders appointed by the mayor — requested proposals to design, build, finance, and operate an express transit service from Downtown to O’Hare International Airport.

The bold proposition would enable a private company to build a transit system. The city wouldn’t generate any revenue, but it wouldn’t spend any money on it either.

“The first thing [I thought] was, ‘Do we even need it? And where was the discussion around the so-called priority?’” said 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack.

Waguespack’s ward sits between Downtown and O’Hare. It includes much of the CTA Blue Line, which already links Downtown and O’Hare in a little more than 40 minutes. He is concerned that an express train would siphon away a large chunk of current Blue Line riders, which could be used by the Chicago Transit Authority as justification for budget cuts.

The Blue Line is currently the fastest train from Downtown to O'Hare. (Bill Healy/WBEZ)

The mayor and officials in his office have said the O’Hare Express will not take away investments in the Blue Line.

Still, Waguespack said Emanuel should instead be focused on police reform, crime, education, and taxes.

Musk’s tunnel dreams delayed in other places

The speed and ease with which Musk has been able to move forward in Chicago is certainly a change of pace from other places where he’s sought to do the same kind of digging.

Last year, The Boring Company, which Musk founded in 2016, proposed digging a high-speed tunnel in Los Angeles. However, neighborhood groups filed a lawsuit to stop the project until an environmental impact report is done. That report is required by California state law, but the Los Angeles City Council had given Musk’s company an exemption.

Musk’s proposed Sepulveda Boulevard tunnel would go through Culver City, just west of L.A., but the city council there has yet to grant The Boring Company any permits, approvals, or exemptions to the environmental requirements.

“When we first started hearing about [the Chicago’s project], everybody thought, ‘Oh, it’s that crazy Elon Musk again,’” said Thomas Aujero Small, the mayor of Culver City.

He said people in L.A. have been skeptical that The Boring Company could dig tunnels as fast and as cheaply as Musk claimed.

“But since then, it’s like, ‘Oh, maybe this could work,’” Small said. “Certainly, if Chicago is approving it, that certainly lends much more credibility to it and makes it even more exciting.”

Emanuel (left) and Musk (right) held a press conference in June, where they talked about The Boring Company's plans to whisk passengers from Downtown Chicago to O'Hare in mere minutes. (Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo)

Will it really get built?

The proposed route for the O’Hare Express has not been set, though city officials said the tunnels would run underneath public streets. This would eliminate or lessen legal concerns about digging below private property. But there are also a lot of other underground unknowns, like what public utilities might need to be moved.

During the Chicago Infrastructure Trust’s last meeting, advisory board member Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, cautioned city officials not to overlook The Boring Company’s connections with Musk’s other endeavors. His flagship company, Tesla, recently laid off 9 percent of its workforce and has been under scrutiny from investors worried about financial stability.

“The Musk family of companies are engaged in a lot of things, many of which are complicated and challenging,” Silvers said. “The question of whether they really have the managerial capacity to execute all of the things they are involved in as a family of companies is a concern to me, and I think we should kick the tires really hard.”

Though negotiations with The Boring Company have just begun, Leslie Darling, head of the Infrastructure Trust, reassured Silvers that the city wouldn’t end up with a bad deal. 

“All of the things you have mentioned are things that we are acutely aware of and are going to do everything to make sure the city’s interests are protected 110 percent,” Darling said.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.