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As negotiations drag on, Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express faces a complicated, uncertain future

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Will the $1 billion tunnel project survive a post-Emanuel City Hall?

A rendering of an “electric skate” that will zip passengers between O’Hare and the Loop at speeds in excess of 100 mph.
The Boring Company

The clock is ticking for Mayor Rahm Emanuel secure a contract for a futuristic high-speed tunnel between downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport to be designed, paid for, and operated by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s The Boring Company. Powered by automated “electric skates,” the 100 mph transportation system is poised to face strong political and regulatory headwinds.

The crowded field of mayoral candidates vying to replace Emanuel are either vocally against the project or lukewarm on the topic, reported the Chicago Tribune. Musk’s company and the city are currently negotiating a contract for the O’Hare Express but it’s unclear if an agreement can be reached before Emanuel departs office in May, said the newspaper.

Meanwhile, Streetsblog Chicago reported on Friday that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) was exploring a potential amendment to its ON TO 2050 regional plan to include Musk’s O’Hare tunnel. A city official clarified that the project is being considered because of an ongoing National Environmental Policy Act review given the tunnel’s potential impact to the federal interstate system above, according to the transit publication.

Considering CMAP’s role in influencing which transportation projects apply for federal funding, the agency’s initial announcement raised some eyebrows. Emanuel’s project was, after all, sold to Chicagoans with the promise of requiring no taxpayer dollars.

“We want to underscore that the O’Hare Express is NOT being submitted to CMAP for inclusion in the ON TO 2050 plan in order to seek federal funding,” wrote CDOT’s Mike Claffey in an email Streetsblog.

Elon Musk and Rahm Emanuel in June, when The Boring Company was selected to build the O’Hare Express.
Courtesy of the Chicago Mayor’s office

Provided that it still has backers in City Hall and everything goes smoothly on the regulatory and approval side of the equation, The Boring Company’s Chicago project must also clear a number of technical hurdles before becoming a reality.

For starters, Musk will need to make good on his company’s promise to deliver substantially faster and cheaper (and still largely unproven) tunneling technology to complete the O’Hare Express in 18 to 24 months at a cost of under $1 billion—estimates that some experts approach with skepticism.

Though The Boring Company invited a Chicago delegate to California to sample its 1.1-mile-long demonstration tunnel in December, the self-guided 100 mph “pods” envisioned for the O’Hare system were nowhere to be seen. Instead, city officials trundled along in modified Tesla automobiles at a top seed of around 30 mph.

“It looks OK but there has to be a lot more questions answered before we can begin a type of project like that,” Alderman Gilbert Villegas told the Chicago Tribune following his ride through the tunnel.