Great Moments In Government Spending: The Station to Nowhere

Mayor Daley of Chicago has a great idea:  despite already having rail transit service between O'Hare Airport and Downtown, he wants to build a new non-stop express rail line to save travelers about 9 minutes.  After all, if Moscow just did this, it must be a good idea.

OK, this is dumb enough.  But what is really amazing is that Chicago embarked on building a $320 million downtown station for the project without even a plan for the rest of the line -- no design, no route, no land acquisition, no appropriation, no cost estimate, nothing.  There are currently tracks running near the station to the airport, but there are no passing sidings on these tracks, making it impossible for express and local trains to share the same track.  The express service idea would either require an extensive rebuilding of the entire current line using signaling and switching technologies that may not (according to Daley himself) even exist, or it requires an entirely new line cut through some of the densest urban environments in the country.  Even this critical decision on basic approach was not made before they started construction on the station, and in fact still has not been made.

Though the article does not mention it, this strikes me as a typical commuter rail strategy -- make some kind of toe-in-the-water investment on a less-than-critical-mass part of the system, and then use that as leverage with voters to approve funding so that the original investment will not be orphaned.  Its a kind of blackmail that both makes me sick, and is necessary for these systems as voters would never ever approve the kind of money that would be required to build the whole project  (If this express line requires $320 million just for one station on one end of the line, can you imagine the total cost?  $10 billion? for 9 minutes time savings).


  1. tribal elder:

    Yes, existing commuter train service to downtown from O'Hare AND Midway are relatively fast and painless already. For $2, you can get from one airport to the other in about 75 minutes- to zooming fast, but it'll beat a cab in rush hour. Why bother-except to have public $ to throw around to connected contractors/campaign donors. It's the Chicago way.

    Millennium Park, a downtown 'showcase' cost the City 316% of its projected costs.

    The City is manuevering to host the 2016 Olympics, and I dread the resultant taxes, the further public corruption, the crowding and the to-be-abandoned, to be shoddily constructed venues that will litter the city. The lakefront will look like ruins.

    My colleagues say they'll call me out of retirement to work on all the construction (non)-payment litigation. I've told them I'll change my phone number.

  2. nicole:

    Relatively fast and painless? I don't know about that, at the moment at least. With the interminable trackwork, riding the el has become a much worse experience. Not to mention the difficulty of getting east-west on the north side. Last time I had to go to O'Hare I took an hour-long bus ride to Jefferson Park, only to find out that one stop down the line the train was stopping and we would be shuttled two more stops to the last stop before O'Hare. On my way back I took a cab and got home in 20 minutes.

    That said, a 9-minute time savings is absurd, and yet somehow I remain unsurprised by anything at all instigated by Mayor Daley.

  3. Evan:

    This is the mayor who does what he wants, damn property rights or the law. Without advance notice, he ordered Meigs Field airport bulldozed under cover of darkness in order to turn the airport into a park.

  4. Esox Lucius:

    Did someone say Operation Greylord? Or was it Operation Silver Shovel, or was it the Hired Truck Scandal that we were talking about. Props to all out there that know the Federal Corruption cases brought against this city.

    For all of you that are from outside our notorious town, many years ago the City of Chicago *wanted* O'Hare airport but it was being built in two towns that it did not own. The problem with annexation is that you need to own an adjcent property. So, in typical Chicago style, the annexed the airport by annexing the grass median that runs down the center of the highway that leads to O'Hare. LOL! and who says that there is no entrepreneurism in the government? If you look at a map of the border of Chicago you can see this big ball sticking out the west side of it's profile where the airport is.

    If you think that's funny, you should read the story about how we shafted our down-river neighbors all the way to the Mississippi when we reversed the Chicago river.

  5. Mike:

    Two points here:

    1) I think the Budget & Tax News story mentioned that the project has been abandoned, if only temporarily, and is currently not proceeding. Perhaps they are waiting for a President Obama to shower gifts on the area he currently represents, including the money to address the huge backlog of maintenance and rehab on CTA's heavy rail system, estimated to cost tens of billions.

    2) " voters would never ever approve the kind of money that would be required to build the whole project."

    Let's not forget Denver.

  6. Corky Boyd:

    Chicago just raised their sales tax by 1% to 10.75%, the top rate in the nation. Gasoline taxes are at he top also. Corrupt Cook County (add to that a corrupt governor) and you have the recipe for politicians doing well and constituents paying for it.

    How many ward heelers will get jobs with the expanded rail line? That's what it's there for, not the 9 minutes.

  7. Tim:

    We were in Chicago a few weeks ago, and spent some time at Millennium Park. It is pretty cool; though I'm glad I don't have to fund it by living in Chicago.

    The inscribed dedication on the stone pedestal commemorating the founding of the park told me all I need to know about Daley. Something about the park being "built by Mayor Daley as a gift to the people of Chicago".

  8. tribal elder:

    By way of history, Chicago did not annex some highway median to make the City adjacent to O'Hare-that would be too simple. I have joked it was the white stripe down Irving Park Road. But, looking at the zoning maps, the connection is a strip annexed through a Cook County forest preserve- not the whole preserve, just a slim strip, through the woods and accross the Des Plaines River at a point where there is not even a hiker's bridge.

  9. Tribal Elder:

    The 'third airport' talk in Illinois is a fight between Jesse Jr. and Daley.

    If Chicago needed more airport capacity, why close Meigs ? If chicago needed airport capacity, just expand Rockford and link it to Chicago with (please pardon me) light rail, with BIG parking lots and service Rockford to ORD, with a train change at ORD for Chicago ? The rights-of-way are in sort-of public hands (Tollway), the airport in Rockford owns adjacent land (No further condemnation/eminent domain).

    But it's not about flight capacity-it's about building the airport with FAA airport trust fund bucks on a 9:1 match, and passing contract out to the connected.

    If there was a federal 9:1 match to build pyramids, Chicago would look like Giza.

  10. clouse:

    Expanding on Tim’s comment:

    Governor Blagojevich also has his name on bunch of stuff too, such as the toll ways. It reminds me of the Mao Zedong picture over the Forbidden City's gate I keep seeing during the Olympic coverage.

  11. Jay:

    Expect lots of desperate measures from Chicago as they try to land the Olympic games.

  12. Brad Warbiany:

    "If you think that's funny, you should read the story about how we shafted our down-river neighbors all the way to the Mississippi when we reversed the Chicago river."

    It's more forceful if you refer to them as our "formerly up-river neighbors"...

    Chicago is one of my favorite cities, having grown up just *outside* of it. But I know I wouldn't want to live in Cook County. I'm here in California, which is an area that sometimes seems sane compared to Chi-Town.

  13. Dan:

    As a lifetime Chicagoan, I'm used to political gimmicks (Millennium Park, additional runway at O'Hare, third airport, casinos) being proposed and passed off as public service when they're mostly designed to line pocketbooks of contributors. However, until I read your posting, I thought an express line to O'Hare sounded like a decent idea. I need to think about that again, obviously, if it really only saves 9 minutes. But my guess is, it would save more time than that.

    There are about 15 stations on the Blue Line to between downtown and the airport. Figuring a train stops for about a minute at each, I'd guess it's at least a 15 minute savings on average. But maybe it's only 45 seconds at each, which would make it closer to 10 minutes - I've never paid attention. Not sure if that extra time is worth all the billions, of course. It is a very slow ride going in from O'Hare, there's no doubt, and I would have appreciated an express back when I used the line.

    I really like the idea of a light rail between O'Hare and Rockford that someone here mentioned. However, I don't really see the point in investing in a future based on cheap air travel, because I don't believe that is our future. In the coming years, air travel will once again become a luxury, too expensive for the average Joe who wants to fly to Las Vegas for the weekend. When oil hits $200 a barrel, watch the airlines go out of business and/or raise fares to prohibitive levels.

  14. tribal elder:

    "light rail between O'Hare and Rockford "-

    Until telecommuting catches on big time, a lot of people will continue to travel downtown. Part of the appeal to light rail would be as the city continues to sprawl, commmuters from a lot farther out of the city--like Huntley and beyond--could drive to a BIG parking lot, board a train 'inbound', change to CTA trains at ORD and head downtown. A long commute, but it would beat the expressways. If the one or both airports closed, there'd still be use for the rail line and parking lots. This would, however, clobber the $36/day/park-at-the airport lots, and I'm sure they are BIG campaign contributors.

    Now this rail project would have to be a private venture (prospective operators bidding for the build-and-operate franchise), or we'd end up with train operators union members trained in 4 weeks being higher priced than the pilots -- oops -- I think CTA already has that except for the old-time airlines.

  15. Mike:

    "Part of the appeal to light rail would be as the city continues to sprawl, commmuters from a lot farther out of the city--like Huntley and beyond--could drive to a BIG parking lot...and head downtown."

    Chicago already has that -- it's called Metra (commuter rail).

    "Now this rail project would have to be a private venture (prospective operators bidding for the build-and-operate franchise)..."

    Unless the prospective operator would also be financing such a project, it would not really be a "private venture".