Chicago Mayor Puts Brakes on ‘Super Station’ Project for Now

Published September 1, 2008

After spending $213 million, the City of Chicago has decided to suspend indefinitely construction of an underground “super station” for express train service to and from the city’s major airports and downtown.

Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) announced he would pull the plug on further construction in June, blaming outdated track-switching technology as the reason. The project was far behind schedule and over budget.

To build the station as originally planned, total spending would be about $320 million, more than $100 million over budget, according to city officials. Skeptics say the estimate of an additional $100 million may be low, noting the city has repeatedly underestimated costs on major projects ranging from football stadium renovations to park construction.

The setback comes as no surprise to the many transportation experts and Chicago political observers who predicted the express train service would never come to fruition.

Train Service Exists “I couldn’t believe it when it was passed by the City Council [in 2005], and I see a lot of questionable stuff here,” said Ben Joravsky, a reporter for the Chicago Reader newspaper who has spent years covering the city’s economic development projects. “Is replication of services that already exist and would work well if the city would invest in upkeep and maintenance of the Orange and Blue Lines [which already provide train service to Midway and O’Hare Airports] necessary?

“I couldn’t get answers from downtown boosters and city officials about why this is needed,” Joravsky said. “One booster did tell me he envisioned a scene where a businessman has a layover at O’Hare, zips into downtown, sees a play, and zips back out to the airport.

“I’m thinking ‘This is unreal. We already have this service. It takes maybe 15 minutes more than it would take with the express train.’ How much money are we willing to invest to shave 15 minutes off that ride? No one asks. Why? Because it’s the mayor’s pet idea,” Joravsky said.

Apparently not even Daley was willing to spend unlimited amounts to see his express train idea succeed, at least in the near future.

At a public appearance in downtown Chicago, Daley told reporters he informed Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) officials, “You can’t build a station without changing the technology. I told them they had to stop. … It’s not going to be fit for the technology of this century. That’s one of the reasons we held it up.”

Idea Still Alive

“Held it up” is a key phrase. Other comments by Daley and recent actions by the CTA board indicate the idea is not dead. Daley told reporters he expects to have the service running by 2016, when Chicago hopes to host the Olympics.

Though the CTA board has voted to suspend station construction indefinitely, it has nonetheless agreed to spend another $45.6 million to lay concrete floors and do other work to finish the shell of the station and connector tunnel. Further construction would be needed to finish the station.

One project booster is Rich Harnish, founder of the Transit Riders’ Alliance in Chicago, who said, “The city needs an express connection between O’Hare and Midway and downtown.”

He defended the effort by saying, “If this were a highway project, stuff like this would get swept under the rug. Most cities in the world that consider themselves to be global competitors already have such connections or are building one. Moscow just opened theirs. We can no longer afford trillions of dollars of subsidies to highway users. We need to expand passenger train service to Chicago and get express service to the airports.”

Not Needed for Development

The station is located on what is known as Block 37, a 2.7-acre parcel in the heart of the city’s Loop business district. About 20 years ago the city took over the block and flattened buildings there for new development that is only now being built.

Joravsky said the block’s developer told him he did not need the super station for his mixed-use development.

“This was entirely the city’s idea,” Joravsky said. He also noted the city apparently had not thought through whether the express trains would run on existing CTA tracks or new ones on land the city probably would need to seize through eminent domain.

“Don’t you think the city would have figured that out before spending all this money on the station?” Joravsky said. “My fear is this will be emblematic of how we operate the Olympics, if we get it. It’s a situation where somebody should have stepped in and said ‘no.’ It’s illustrative of a lot of the problems you get when you have a one-man empire.”

Too Many Assumptions

Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation and urban planning professor at DePaul University in Chicago, publicly expressed doubts about the project from the beginning.

“When plans get this complicated it’s a warning sign that things could go awry,” Schwieterman said. “The project requires many assumptions. If any one is wrong, it could jeopardize the investment.”

Schwieterman said the city did not have a funding plan for the whole project before embarking on phase one, another serious blunder.

Priorities Questioned

The service “would need to operate with scientific precision, which requires a big change in the CTA’s culture and capital programs,” Schwieterman said. “A train runs five minutes late, the whole system gets bottled up.

“Committing to such enormous investment in a downtown station raises questions about the city’s spending priorities,” Schwieterman added. “The station is but a small component of the project’s appeal to a typical traveler. It’s discouraging so much has been spent on a complex station design when that station contributes relatively little to the overall passenger experience.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.