Chicago’s O’Hare airport rail link project finally creaks into motion

Chicago’s plans to build a link between the city centre and O’Hare airport, which was first announced in February last year, may finally be about to make some progress. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Infrastructure Trust have issued a request for qualifications (RQF) for consortiums who want to take on the link as a public-private partnership.

The expected cost is not given in the request, but it is generally assumed to be somewhere between $1bn and $3bn, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The building of the link is intended to complement an expansion of O’Hare, formerly the busiest airport in the US, which was also announced in February last year (see "related stories" below). The goal is to offer a "20 minutes or less" airport service, which would cut the present travel time in half.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the aim is to find "potential corridors above or below surface level" to deliver express service "at least every 15 minutes for the majority of the day" for fares "less than" the cost of a taxicab or Uber ride.

The move follows a $2m feasibility study carried out by WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff to identify potential routes, develop a cost estimate and pinpoint the location of downtown and airport stations.

Deputy Mayor Bob Rivkin said the RQF identified three potential routes for a service, although bidders were free to propose their own. The authorities are also keeping an open mind on whether the line would be above or below ground.

Chicago has been hesitating over this project for decades, but has been deterred by the multi-billion price tag associated with it. Taxpayers are still footing the bill for a Chicago Transit Authority superstation that cost $250m before being scrapped as "too costly and possibly unfeasible". The bonds are being paid off at the rate of $2m a year. By the time the books are finally closed on the project, Chicagoans will have spent an estimated $400m on the aborted scheme.

Now the city has solved the cost problem by giving it to the private sector in exchange for a concession to run the link. Interested bidders have to include a downtown station, an O’Hare station and one maintenance facility and determine ways to minimise "potential conflicts or impacts on existing transportation systems and the environment".

They also have to recoup their investment while competing with cabs and Uber drivers.

Responses are due on 24 January, after which the city and the trust will select one or more "most qualified" respondents to proceed to the request-for-proposal phase.

Image: The last attempt to build the link left taxpayers with a $400m bill for an abandoned "superstation" (O’Hare airport)

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