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The costly lunacy of Block 37/CTA express rail service to O’Hare and Midway Airports

Dennis Byrne 19 December 2007 No Comment

Especially as the CTA is scraping around for big money

If it’s a good idea, it shouldn’t take all that long to get it going.

By many accounts, Chicago took only four years to rebuild and obliterate just about all signs of the 1871 fire that destroyed downtown and most of the city.

Reversing the flow of the Chicago River—an engineering marvel of its time—took 13 years from conception until its 1900 finish. Literally raising the city a half dozen feet out its swampy bottom took six years in the mid-1850s, a mere 30 years after the city’s founding.

Then there’s block 37.

It’ll be almost two decades since the city demolished an entire block in the heart of the Loop before the mixed-use development, including a superstation for CTA “express” service to the airports, is completed, and that’s still just a projection. Add another 20 years or so, if you count the time since the late Mayor Richard J. Daley conceived the idea.

So, as the long-awaited Block 37 structures now abuilding take shape, let it be said here, before City Hall can start crowing about what a wunnerful thing it has brought forth, that this has to be one of the most monumental blunders in the city’s history.

The entire project has gone through so many permutations and failures that it is almost impossible now to remember off the top of one’s head the number of developers who have eyed the project and then disappeared; the number of retailers who planned to rent but backed out; the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of tax dollars that have gone down or will go down the drain or were sucked into the black hole of tax increment financing; the number of big names and insiders who raked in their share of the big dollars; the number of promises made and promises broken.

As if this were not enough, somewhere along the line, an old idea was added to the menu: express service to O’Hare Airport (and later Midway Airport) on CTA tracks. If that doesn’t beat all.

Some background: Block 37, bounded by State and Dearborn, Washington and Randolph, was once a thriving, but motley collection of stores, including the Loop’s only full service grocery store and, arguably, a handful of landmark buildings. Mayor Richard J . dreamed of someday replacing it with a “super block,” but it was up to his son, Richard M., to carry out the dream. In 1989, the entire block was razed for what was to be the anchor for the redevelopment of the blemished North Loop. Never mind that by now, the rest of the North Loop has been redeveloped pretty much on its own by the private sector, without benefit City Hall’s keen insight, while Block 37 remained a vacant eyesore.

The idea of express service from downtown to O’Hare is as old as Block 37, but from the very beginning any thoughtful analysis said there was a better way to create high-end express rail service than an expensive retooling of the CTA rail lines and construction of a costly downtown superstation. For one thing, CTA “express” trains could go no faster than local trains; both would have to share the same tracks. The addition of a bypass track or two would be ridiculously expensive for the benefits that would be achieved.

A better idea was (and still is) to use the abundance of rail lines already running between downtown and O’Hare. Metra’s Milwaukee District West Line and the former Soo Line (now Metra’s North Central Service) pass close enough to the airport to qualify as candidates. Buy a few self-propelled rail cars or dedicate a few Metra cars to premium airport service, build a station at the airport (one now exists on the North Central line), have a shuttle meet the express run every, say, 15 minutes, and the job would have been done for a lot less than the CTA nightmare. And a lot quicker because Metra local trains (running about every hour) wouldn’t hold up the express.

And instead of building an entire new downtown “super station,” the express trains could have been run from Union Station or Ogilvie Transportation Center. Virtually no new construction would be required. One might argue that Block 37 is the better choice because it is more centrally located, but it would have made no difference for the business people (the major market segment) staying where most hotels are, along North Michigan Ave. and River North. You could almost argue that it’s a faster cab ride from N. Michigan along lower Wacker Dr. to the near West Side terminals than it would be to Block 37.

But instead of this sensible approach, City Hall preferred to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more for less attractive service from Block 37 via the CTA tracks. The latest idea is to have a concessionaire run it beginning sometime next year over CTA tracks. City Hall is ballyhooing it as “premium” service that would give passengers advance airline baggage check-in at Block 37, hotels and the airports. They would ride in made-over CTA cars, with wide seats, plug-ins for laptops and luggage racks.

For all this, the concessionaire would have come up with an estimated $64 million for the refurbished cars and track improvements. That’s in addition to the $213 million that the city, the CTA and the Block 37 developer, the Mills Corp., would pay for the Block 37 complex.

Well, don’t mistake any of this for hard numbers. Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business reported (subscription required) that the superstation already is running $150 million over budget and has prompted City Hall to explore privatization of the project. And a few aldermen in the normally quiescent City Council objected (but not enough to do any good) that a $42 million city subsidy for the Block 37 project went instead to the CTA, and not to the developer—the Mills Corp.—supposedly to get around a requirement that 20 percent of the housing in any city-subsidized project must be “affordable, that is for low- and moderate-income families.

When all is said and spent, the Block 37/CTA service still won’t get passengers back and forth from the airport any faster, because the express trains still won’t be able to go faster than the locals. It’ll be that way until it can be determined just how attractive the service is. If it turns out (against the odds) that it is, then figure $1.5 billion for by-pass tracks on the Blue and Orange lines to the two airports to institute real express service.

Of all the insane ideas to ooze out of City Hall, this rivals the worst. The Metra alternative would provide all the supposed benefits of the Block 37/CTA service, at less cost while moving travelers back and forth faster, sooner.

Why are we burdened with such nonsense? One can only guess, and I’ve got a few educated ones.

1. The edifice complex. Why go with the cheaper, better alternative when you can spend millions more on concrete and steel? The Block 37/CTA boondoggle certainly isn’t the first in this town: Recall the ill-fated Loop/Distributor Subway project, which would have replaced the city’s signature Loop L structure with a complex of new subways that wouldn’t get anyone anyplace faster, but at cost of what was then a staggering $1 billion and a decade of Loop disruption.

2. The power complex. This was Richard J. Daley’s dream and now his son is determined to bring it to fruition. O’Hare and the CTA are his, and no one (Metra) from the suburbs is going to steal the dream. Just as no one is going to cut in on his action (jobs and contracts) at O’Hare and Midway airport action by allowing private developers to build, finance and operate a South Suburban Airport at little cost to taxpayers and fliers.

Whatever the explanation, the consequences of such bad decision-making will be with us a lot longer than the decades it took Block 37 to get started and, possibly, finished.

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