Beware the siren song of 'infrastructure'

Make only big, costly plans.

“Infrastructure” is billed as the one government expenditure that can bring the waring political sides together, as if every dollar spent is a good, great idea.

It’s not. At least not as often as it is billed. Let’s take some examples of costly infrastructure projects that flopped:

The $363 million “new face” of  O’Hare  Airport terminals.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into new facades for the roadsides of terminals 1, 2 and 3. It involved pushing out the terminal walls to enlarge ticket-counter and baggage-claim areas and build a canopy over the upper roadways to protect travelers from rain and snow.

But as a Chicago Tribune investigation found a couple of years after the project began, the project is…

up to $48 million over budget, eight months behind schedule and plagued by structural problems underground and overhead….

Originally pegged at $315 million, the project’s price tag already is likely to reach at least $363 million, much of that because O’Hare officials and the airlines added more construction work after the price of steel skyrocketed. The city estimates that $15 million of that total will be needed to remedy cracks in steel welds, although airport officials vow to pass on most of that extra cost to companies they feel are responsible for mistakes.

The bickering between the city and the contractors about who would pay to repair the problems went on for almost a decade. In 2013, the Tribune reported  that the seven companies that worked on the project finally coughed up $21 million to settle the city’s lawsuits.

But here’s the kicker: All that work on Terminal 2 will now be destroyed to make way for the grandiose new “world-class,” multi-billion-dollar terminal jammed through by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and apparently supported by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the powers that be.

Never mind that the new, $8 billion terminal is required because of fatal flaws in $16-billion (at least) O’Hare Modernization Program initiated by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. The OMP was sold as the best and only way to fix the delay and capacity problems of the nation’s most despised airport, but failed to do so on all counts.

The $400 million subway superstation to nowhere in the Block 37 basement

The superstation was to have been the fancy downtown terminal for high-speed trains to O’Hare and Midway airports. The only problem is that the cost of the reconstruction of the CTA train lines to the airports accommodate express trains was so prohibitive (estimates ran over $1 billion) that the project was abandoned.

The station remains locked and unused while Emanuel and others tried to figure out how provide non-stop, express service to and from O’Hare. Thus, Emanuel’s  pie-in-the-sky pushing of Elon Musk’s Boring Company to connect the Block 37 station to O’Hare via a deep tunnel that would zip passengers back and forth in 12 minutes. The would use unproven technology. Lightfoot appears to have scotched the idea.

High-speed, express service to O’Hare still dances in the heads of contractors, insiders and transit planners. No doubt the next idea will cost hundreds of millions, even though a much cheaper and reasonable possibility exist: Use Metra lines from downtown to the airport’s doorstep that already exist.

More to come.

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