THE BLOG
10/08/2010 11:58 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Which Way for O'Hare Express?

Mayor Daley's vision for a high-speed train from O'Hare to a "superstation" under Block 37 at State and Randolph faces major hurdles, as Jon Hilkevitch points out in the Chicago Tribune; a proposal by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association may offer some solutions.

Along with questions of financing and marketing, there's the question of routing: building alongside the Blue Line from State Street would mean digging miles of tunnels and "demolishing hundreds, maybe thousands, of buildings and other structures along the route," as Hilkevitch writes.

MHSRA has backed a proposal for a high-speed railroad built on existing tracks from Union Station to O'Hare, part of a larger project to build a 220-mph "bullet train" line from Chicago to St. Louis.

The O'Hare-Union station leg would follow Metra's Milwaukee West route; there is space for additional track "along essentially all of the route," according to a feasibility study issued by MHSRA a year ago (pdf). At Union Station, a four-level West Loop Transportation Center proposed by the city would facilitate interconnections with Amtrak, Metra, and CTA.

From Union Station the train would head to McCormick Place - a three-minute trip along existing track, according to the study - then south to Kankakee, Champaign, Springfield, and St. Louis.

Basic construction from O'Hare to Union Station, not including stations, would cost about $1 billion in 2012 dollars, according to the study; service from station to station would take 25 minutes and could be operated profitably with a fare of $10.

A 2006 CTA study of express airport train service (pdf) projected a 30-minute ride with fares of $12 to $17 - figures based on what the "price-insensitive business traveler market" would bear (they're actually one-third and one-half the taxi fare to O'Hare).

There are much larger advantages to the MHSRA plan, hinging on an ambitious long-term vision of a Midwest high-speed rail network.

"It's exciting that Mayor Daley has made getting an express train to O'Hare from downtown such a high priority," said Rick Harnish, executive director of MHSRA. "Our proposal provides an opportunity to use that as a stepping stone for something much bigger."

The long-term advantages involve directly linking O'Hare with a regional high-speed rail network eventually serving 42 billion passengers in eight or nine states with over 2,000 miles of track and 28 stations in large and small cities and airports around the region. Such a system would dramatically reduce highway and airport congestion, carbon emissions, and oil dependence, proponents say.

A recent Illinois PIRG study says a high-speed rail network would strengthen the region's economic integration and create 57,000 permanent jobs. It would boost the rail manufacturing industry in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Illinois PIRG estimates that 70 percent of Illinois jobs and 58 percent of Midwest residents -- 35 million people -- would ultimately be within 15 miles of a high-speed rail station.

And most remarkably, it's happening.

Work started last month on improvements to the Chicago-St. Louis line that will cut travel times to four hours. It's part of $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds the Obama administration awarded to Illinois - out of a total $2.7 billion to six midwestern states.

It's happening in other Midwest states too. Wisconsin is building high-speed capacity from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago, and Michigan is building capacity on the Chicago-Detroit corridor. Congress is appropriating more funding for high-speed rail.

And Illinois has applied for federal funds to begin planning for 220-mph "bullet trains" on the route, which would cut travel times to two hours. That makes Illinois one of the only states to make bullet trains an official priority, as MHSRA noted. (Even current improvements to provide for 110-mph service will a have a tremendous economic impact, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council.)

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is a major booster, predicting in a recent talk with the Peoria Rotary Club that within 25 years, 85 percent of Americans will be connected to high-speed rail.

Last year Mayor Daley joined eight midwestern governors at a Midwest High-Speed Rail Summit signing a memorandum of understanding establishing a steering group to coordinate plans and lobbying for federal support. Last May the state senate passed a resolution to create an Illinois High Speed Rail Commission, which would develop plans for a private-public partnership to build and operate a bullet train system, including recommendations for integration with airports, Amtrak and public transit.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's Go To 2040 regional plan, which will be rolled out on October 13, backs high-speed rail. "The advent of high-speed rail prompts CMAP to recommend creation of the West Loop Transportation Center," according to a draft of Go To 2040 released last month. The new facility is "necessary for Chicago to become, as intended, the hub of a Midwest high-speed rail network," according to the draft.

(CMAP cautions that funding for high-speed rail development cannot come at the expense of desperately-needed funds to maintain existing transit.)

In August, Mayor Daley appointed an O'Hare Express Blue Ribbon Committee, chaired by industrial Lester Crown, to "undertake a comprehensive study for express train service between O'Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago." The committee's charge is broad - the announcement says it will consider potential routes and options for the downtown terminus.

They should consider the big picture, take the long view, and look at the Union Station connection.

***

High-speed rail has long been a bipartisan cause, but in this year's elections, Republican gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Florida are promising to return stimulus funds dedicated to high-speed rail, the New York Times reports.

Some are worried about operating costs, some would rather spend it on highways (as if highways didn't involve heavy maintenance costs - and heavy public subsidies).

Republicans HSR supporters like LaHood and California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger have pushed back against Meg Whitman and the others.

In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn has been a fervent supporter of high-speed rail, and his Republican opponent, State Senator Bill Brady, promises to "fight for federal money to enhance high-speed freight and passenger rail" (though Progress Illinois points out that Brady was one of 12 senators to vote against the state's capital budget last year - and has called for repealing the gas tax).

Illinois PIRG is collecting signatures on a petition calling on Illinois gubernatorial candidates to stay on track with high-speed rail.