Problems with Elon Musk's underground rocket trip to O'Hare Airport

Before we all swoon under the hypnotic hype about Elon Musk's proposal to build a high-speed automated people-mover between O'Hare Airport and the Loop, a few questions need to be asked.

Passengers will be whisked in pods like these deep under the city to O'Hare Airport

Passengers will be whisked in pods like these deep under the city to O'Hare Airport

Oops, too late. As with every "bold, new mega project" here, the wowzers, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and assorted "mover and shakers" (i.e. The Connected) expect us to swallow it whole.

But all sorts of valid questions have been raised by we skeptics and cynics (that's what we'll be called) most notably The Midwest High Speed Rail Association and a Bob Johnson, a structural engineer.

The association, for example, asks:

The O’Hare link would be the first actual implementation of Musk’s “Loop” concept, an automated people mover using small “pods” at high speeds [more than 100 mph] with frequent departures. While each component of the Loop is a refinement of existing technology, putting it all together involves a lot of unknowns. For example, Musk is betting on a narrow-bore tunnel being cheaper and faster to dig. But will the tunnel design allow sufficient emergency access? The system also relies on an unproven elevator system to lower the pods 50 to 100 feet below downtown skyscrapers and O’Hare terminals. For the purposes of safety regulation, will this be a railroad? Or something else that will require a new regulatory structure and rules?

Musk asserts that he'll finance the whole thing--about $1 billion--without putting an additional burden on already stressed taxpayers, as if we haven't heard that before. He thinks that he can charge $20 to $25 per ride and attract enough riders to make a profit.  Taxpayers are told that “it's a roll of somebody else's dice.” 

His boring technology is unproven and city officials aren't saying much about the tunnel's routes. In an astonishing assertion, Musk praised Chicago for not having a lot of regulatory hurdles, surely a surprise to anyone trying to run a business here.

Thanks to the city's anticipated rapid green light, Musk thinks he can start digging in, oh, three months, and complete the project in 18 to 24 months. Maybe he has a rocket in his pocket to get federal and state approvals and to meet any public hearing requirements. That schedule would establish some kind of world record for an approval of an environmental impact statement. Do he and Emanuel figure that they don't need any public input.

Under whose  jurisdiction would the project fall? If the route doesn't deviate from the narrow neck of the Kennedy Expressway that links O'Hare to corporate Chicago, then maybe it would be under the city's oversight entirely. Or would surrounding suburbs have a stake and claim joint oversight if it runs under them? How about the state of Illinois? What state law permits such an endeavor while excluding state agencies from sticking its fingers in? Is it a railroad subject to the regulation of the Federal Railroad Administration?

Exactly how deep will the tunnels have to be? We're being told vaguely that they'll be 50 to 100 feet deep, a difference of 100 percent, which is pretty loose for a project that's to get underway in three months. What kind of environmental problems will be caused?  What will it do to the water table? Chicago was built on a marsh; will the tunnels be susceptible to flooding?

The railroad association makes the argument that cheaper, more realistic alternatives are available as does Johnson. The association points out that the project lacks a regional perspective because by far most people who use O'Hare aren't coming from the Loop. I've made the case for using existing Metra tracks to make the link.

Musk is a visionary whose returnable rockets are a sight to behold. All praise to him for his adventurous, risk-taking, for his vision and his can-do spirit.  If his project succeeds, it will be swell. A fantastic tourist draw. A mark of a city on the make.


Former Mayor Richard M. Daley got the idea for such a project when in China while riding its  own version of a rapid airport link. But this would reflect China in another way: An autocratic government that decides on its own what's good for all of us. Shouldn't Emanuel, Musk and the powerful voices behind this project be required at least to demonstrate that it be feasible, reasonable and in the common good?

Nope. It's not the Chicago Way.

My historical novel: Madness: The War of 1812

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  • Yes Dennis, right on all counts. We both have been around long enough to sniff a strong stench. The little guy is in a fight for his political life. He just came off a good solid bashing with the CPS Sexual Predator investigation. The headlines were horrible for two solid weeks. Leadership was totally absent and he's the head leader. It's all on him.So now comes Elon whose ego and money stretch to the moon with this silly idea. Bam! two days of headlines ,press conferences, Rahm and Elon. Maybe folks are distracted ,how could they not be. Then all the things come into play you so brilliantly brought up and maybe after the election, we get oh gee ,well I wanted it but it just didn't work out. However it did have it's useful purpose. It's kinda like the Stuff old Burke does. Remember the Ballpark ban on Chewing Tobacco? Did you ever see Terry Francona when Cleveland is in town, or the rest of the chewers, but Burke got press and then it all went away. Rahm invented this distraction charade. It's for the Children. That's my take.

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