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Chicago's mayor offers new plan for high-speed O'Hare-Loop rail

(The following story by Fran Spielman appeared on the Chicago Sun-Times website on August 18, 2010.)

CHICAGO — Air travelers might someday be able to pay a premium fare for privately financed and operated high-speed trains to whisk them from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago.

Citing interest already expressed by investors from China, Japan and the Middle East, Mayor Daley today appointed a heavyweight panel of business and labor leaders to try to attract the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to provide express service to O'Hare.

The mayor’s mandate to Lester Crown and others is that no city money be used to build the separate tracks along the Kennedy Expressway that would be needed to duplicate the sort of high-speed rail service that’s already wildly popular in Japan.

“It has to be almost a separate private system,” the mayor told a City Hall news conference.

That means the 17-member panel will do its best to attract private investors — first to build the system, then possibly to run it for the next 25 years.

“There’s already interest by private investment funds, foreign investment funds,” Daley said. “They’ve come to see me, I’ll be very frank, talking about this. That’s exciting.”

Asked to identify those potential investors, Daley said, “The Chinese, Japanese and Middle East already. And that excludes other investment funds here in America. Once you start this, once you announce it through the media, then we’ll get more and more interest.”

Crown added, “The mandate from the mayor is: ‘No city money. No government money.’ ”

If it can’t be done privately, Crown said, it won’t be done.

Pressed on whether he believes it can be done, Crown said, “I have absolutely no idea. It has to be operationally feasible. It has to be economically feasible. And not using government or city money, we just don’t know” if it’s possible.

Two years ago, the CTA mothballed plans for express trains to O’Hare and Midway amid more than $100 million in cost overruns on the super-station that was supposed to be built downtown beneath Block 37.

At the time, the mayor said he would search for a private partner to complete the station.

The new plan is far more ambitious. Daley is now talking about finding private investors to complete the station, lay separate track and possibly to run the system.

“If you look at global cities, they have a high-speed train from their airport downtown,” Daley said. “It’s vitally important. That is essential to locate businesses in the downtown area. It’s important for conventions and tourism as well.

“This is all about creating jobs and looking to the future . . . These are not pork-barrel projects. This is private money coming in to invest with a decent return in regards to putting people back to work. And not just for one year, not two or three years. We’re talking about 20, 25 years.”

The CTA already has spent more than $250 million on the stalled super-station beneath Block 37. Daley wouldn't say whether Chicago taxpayers would be asked to contribute any additional money toward that station.

CTA Board Chairman Terry Peterson said he doesn't think that privately run O'Hare express service would take business away from the CTA. To the contrary, he said he believes the two would "complement" each other.

"The CTA needs about $7 billion just to get up to a state of good repair," Peterson said. "That's not even expanding the system.

"If this comes into being, you could actually bring people from O'Hare — tourists, business people — and once they get downtown, connect them to CTA. That could actually help us expedite our capital program."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

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