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Chicago taps Elon Musk's company to build high-speed tunnels that would tie Loop with O'Hare

Bill Ruthhart and John Byrne, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- Autonomous 16-passenger vehicles would zip back and forth at speeds exceeding 100 mph in tunnels between the Loop and O'Hare International Airport under a high-speed transit proposal being negotiated between Mayor Rahm Emanuel's City Hall and billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk's The Boring Co., city and company officials have confirmed.

Emanuel's administration has selected Musk's company from four competing bids to provide high-speed transportation between downtown and the airport. Negotiations between the two parties will ensue in hopes of reaching a final deal to provide a long-sought-after alternative to Chicago's traffic gridlock and slower "L" trains.

In choosing Boring, Emanuel and senior City Hall officials are counting on Musk's highly touted but still unproven tunneling technology over the more traditional high-speed rail option that until recently had been envisioned as the answer to speeding up the commute between the city's central business district and one of the world's busiest airports.

Emanuel and Boring officials said it's too early to provide a timeline for the project's completion or its estimated cost, but they said Boring would pay for the entire project. That would include the construction of a new station at O'Hare and the completion of the mothballed superstation built at Block 37 under previous Mayor Richard M. Daley, who like Emanuel pushed for high-speed rail access to O'Hare.

Musk and Emanuel are expected to formally announce the proposal Thursday afternoon at that long-dormant underground station.

Under the proposal, passengers would be able to travel from the Loop to O'Hare in just 12 minutes at an estimated cost of $20 to $25 per ride. A final route for the high-speed tunnels is still subject to negotiations, and a Boring official and Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin declined to identify where it might run.

Boring's preferred preliminary route, however, would follow Randolph Street west from Block 37 and then run under the Kennedy Expressway northwest before tracking north under Halsted Street and northwest under Milwaukee Avenue. The tunnels then would run northwest under Elston Avenue near Goose Island before again crossing under the Kennedy Expressway near Bryn Mawr Avenue and heading west to O'Hare, according to a source familiar with the plans who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The transit system's O'Hare station is planned near the new global terminal Emanuel has announced as part of an $8.5 billion overhaul of the airport, the source said.

All told, Boring has estimated the project will cost less than $1 billion, according to a source familiar with the company's proposal but not authorized to speak publicly because of ongoing negotiations.

In exchange for paying to build the new transit system, Boring would keep the revenue from the system's transit fees and any money generated by advertisements, branding and in-vehicle sales, Rivkin and the company said. Ownership of the twin tunnels has not been determined, but the Emanuel administration plans to seek a long-term lease to Musk's company, a source familiar with the proposal said.

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