Trains and Planes: The O’Hare Plan

ohareIn a year without a lot to be cheerful about in our hometown, I was excited to hear that Mayor Emanuel is putting a real push behind the idea of high speed rail service from the Chicago loop to O’Hare. This is a really good idea for a few reasons but primarily because it will increase Chicago’s global competitiveness, take a big ding out of traffic, and bring a lot of economy that has sprawled into the suburbs back downtown.

If you are running a global business today, the fact of the matter is that you’ll have a lot of employees spending a lot of time on airplanes. We simply aren’t at the point where most interactions can be done virtually. And those hours really add up. Embarrassingly, not a single US airport makes the global list of best airports and right now Chicago doesn’t make the list even in North America. One big, often cited reason for one airport to outrank another is ease of transportation to and from it. This is one of things that always holds American airports back – we haven’t got anything like the Heathrow Express. Creature comforts are great, but efficiency and predictability are way more important (which is why I’ve previously argued for a service level agreement at customs, guaranteeing 95% of passengers get through in 15 minutes or fewer.)

This matters not just for businesses headquartered in Chicago (and would certainly be a boost to companies like Amazon or GE when they consider locating here), but it also matters a lot for other key Chicago industries: tourism, hospitality, and conventions. We all know Chicago has some of the greatest restaurants, theatre, and entertainment available anywhere and we get more than 50 million tourists a year spending billions of dollars. And many of the jobs in these industries are low skill or entry level but with career paths, which is a major win in an economy increasingly focused on high tech and services.

One way to see directly what a difference better airport transportation would make is to look at Rosemont. Why does it have its own thriving hotels, conference center, offices, etc.? It doesn’t offer a better climate, better amenities, or even appreciably lower prices that downtown. It’s just way more convenient that taking a car ride that could take anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours, or trying to drag luggage (especially convention kits) on the Blue Line. A side effect of high speed service to the loop would be that a lot of that business could move back downtown.

Less discussed, but probably also top of mind for Kennedy commuters is the fact that this rail service would take some load of the highways and even off the Blue Line. That would lead to fewer delays, longer lasting roads, and less crowded el cars. It would also make it easier for O’Hare freight service, since it would need to compete with a lot fewer cars on the roads.

There has been a tendency to think of the high speed airport link as just a concession to rich businesspeople, but I believe it’s anything but that. It would be a major factor in boosting the economy and increasing the quality of transportation even for people not themselves going to the airport. It’s a worthy project and one we should pursue.

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