If We Can’t Kill The O’Hare Airport Connector, Can We At Least Make It Useful?

Chicago’s business community has been screaming for a fast transit link to O’Hare airport for decades, and it seems that it’s the idea that just won’t die. Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch reports that recently re-elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to revive the airport link yet again:

Emanuel has made repeated statements recently that Chicago should try again to launch a nonstop express passenger rail service between downtown and O’Hare, patterned after the premium express trains that for years have been operating between airports and city centers in Europe and Asia, including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark.

To his credit, Hilkevitch seems skeptical of the proposal, reporting that there are no financing measures in place that could support such a service, and that the mayor’s staff wish he would talk it up a little less. Hilkevitch’s skepticism of this project’s feasibility is perhaps mirrored by the standard–and quite well argued–urbanist line that airport transit is overrated. Stephen Smith–certainly no bleeding-heart class warrior–perhaps put it best, in a New York City context:

Globetrotting elites might salivate over the possibility of stepping off of an airplane and into a train that will take them directly to a starchitect-designed Penn Station in midtown, but if the next mayor wants to make a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, he should listen to the outer-borough residents who make up the majority of New Yorkers. Not landlords, business travelers and architecture critics in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn.

The proposition of a new airport connector is, if anything, somewhat more absurd in Chicago. Chicago already boasts one of North America’s premier rail-airport connections, with the Blue Line running directly into a terminal at O’Hare (sometimes a little too far) and the Orange Line terminating at Midway (though a decent, somewhat inconvenient walk from the terminal).  Sure, riding the Blue Line from the Loop to O’Hare is kind of slow, but riders are already seeing results from CTA’s nearly half-billion-dollar rehab project, and it’s generally faster than the amazingly clogged Kennedy Expressway regardless of time of day.

So no, Chicago doesn’t need a new airport connector so much as the city’s business elites are seeking to hijack the planning process and spend the city’s limited infrastructure resources on a luxury item for themselves (seriously, just check out the prices for comparable airport connectors listed in the Hilkevitch piece). But at least someone powerful is vocally advocating for new transit in Chicago. Is there a way to harness the energies of the business elite and yoke them to a plan that could benefit the city more broadly?

One plan that seems to be emerging along those lines is the CrossRail Chicago proposal pushed by the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. At first glance, the CrossRail Chicago marketing plan appears cringeworthy in the same elite-focused way as other O’Hare express proposals, selling the project as bringing “New, electrified express trains linking O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago.” Can you imagine a more business class set of destinations in Chicago? Underneath the elite-focused language, though, there’s an element of significant promise to the CrossRail plan that deserves some attention from business elites and transit advocates alike.

The key element of the CrossRail plan is the idea of using existing run-through platforms at Chicago Union Station to connect the Metra Electric District, the highest-quality passenger corridor in the area, to other lines on the North Side, with an emphasis on a northwestern connection to O’Hare. (graphics from the PDF flyer)

crossrail chicago downtown

With this–relatively uncomplicated, although somewhat capacity-constrained–core connection made, the rest of the regional network, which would serve both local and intercity services, could be built out in phases as money becomes available.

crossrail chicago phases

The first phase would be the downtown connector and electrification of the Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service (Canadian Pacific and Canadian National) tracks out to O’Hare. The entire distance would use existing right-of-way that primarily serves passenger trains, but sees significant freight traffic as well in some segments. I argued in my post on turning Metra into regional rail that the O’Hare connector would not be my first choice for a North Side connection to the Metra Electric District, but it does serve a significant need, and cost was a significant factor in my argument. In fact, the MD-W line serves one of the largest areas of Chicago currently completely unserved by high-quality fixed-guideway transit (apologies for the poor drawing).

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly traces the CrossRail path to O'Hare.

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly (variations may be blamed on my crappy trackpad and broken mouse) traces the CrossRail path to O’Hare.

Because of how industry, much of which has now moved out, historically clustered around the railroad tracks, there are plenty of opportunities for much-needed TOD projects along the MD-W path from the Loop to O’Hare. The adjacent neighborhoods aren’t among Chicago’s densest, but they’re diverse and still reasonably walkable and dense.

Would the CrossRail proposal, and the O’Hare connection it offers, be my first choice for Chicago’s next major transit expansion? No, probably not.  But it does offer significant new mobility potential for a large swath of the city, while potentially giving the business community the upgraded O’Hare connection they’ve always wanted. A CrossRail Chicago-like plan, assuming that it came with local as well as express service, could very well be a benefit to the larger population of Chicago in a way that other airport connectors have struggled to be. It would introduce the concept of regional rail upgrades to the extensive commuter network to the Chicago area, and indeed, has the potential to be the most promising regional rail project in the US, bettered in North America by Toronto’s efforts to turn Metrolinx into a Regional Express Rail. And it could do that while harnessing the energies of the business community, turning their self-centered desire to throw money around into something mutually and widely beneficial. And engaging the business community could–could–in turn bring support for a more extensive transit campaign, a strategy that the Transit Future campaign is clearly relying upon.

But that’s a lot of ifs. It’s a lot of conditions to be met. And it’s a lot of uncertainty. There would seem to be a way forward that could both satisfy the globally connected dreams of Chicago’s business elite and provide public benefit, but it is a path fraught with potential disagreement, waste, and acrimony. I would, tentatively, support an O’Hare connector project that followed these lines, and perhaps even name it one of the city’s top transit priorities. Chicago would do well to remember the experience of Philadelphia, which spent 25 years building perhaps the nation’s most advanced piece of regional rail infrastructure with significant backing from the business community, including (of course) an airport connector. In the meantime, the (much more heavily used) rest of the system fell to pieces, and the Center City Commuter Tunnel has never been used to its full, transformational potential.  A CrossRail-based O’Hare Connector might provide mobility to a large swath of Chicago that needs it. It might provide the vehicle by which the Metra Electric District finally becomes the rapid transit system it is destined to be. But if that’s going to happen, it’s going to take sustained work, cooperation, backbone, political savvy, and not a small dose of luck.