clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The political winds in Chicago are blowing against Elon Musk’s high-speed tunnel project

Politics, red tape, and scandal threaten to derail Musk’s promise of 150 mph transit system

Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas had lofty expectations for his mid-December test ride of The Boring Company’s experimental “Tesla-in-a-tunnel” technology. It would be the first time Villegas got a chance to set eyes on the system that The Boring Company said it would bring to Chicago.

In June, Boring Company CEO Elon Musk confidently promised Chicago a yet-to-be-invented method of subterranean mass transit. He’d dig a pair of 18-mile long tunnels between the Loop downtown area and O’Hare International Airport and shoot electric-powered passenger pods packed with people back and forth at speeds of up to 150 mph—high-speed rides Musk insisted would feel “smooth as glass.” To top it off, the tech mogul priced the whole venture at only $1 billion — all of which would come from his company, with no taxpayer subsidy. Oh, and Musk would be more than happy to start drilling in a few months.

The so-called O’Hare Express project sounded like the stuff of science fiction and for Villegas, it still is. The former Marine and Gulf War veteran’s inaugural trip on a retrofitted Tesla Model X in a mile-long tunnel in Southern California topped out at 40 mph and was bumpy going. He described the ride as uneven, like the feeling of driving a car on an unpaved road. “It wasn’t as smooth as I thought it would be,” Villegas told The Verge. “It certainly felt too experimental for someone to invest a billion dollars in.”

There’s still no contract between The Boring Company and the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (the nonprofit founded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to organize private-public partnerships on behalf of the city), which has, in turn, slowed down federal environmental law requirements. Even if a deal is inked soon, it must cross the desk of a city council recently rocked by a federal corruption scandal, and that appears in no mood to greenlight big projects. That’s a problem for Musk with the city’s February 26th mayoral election just days away and nearly all of the 14 candidates in line to replace Emanuel against or ambivalent to the O’Hare Express plan.

In the meantime, Musk and Emanuel and other involved parties remain quiet publicly about the project. Neither Shannon Breymaier, Emanuel’s director of communications, nor Sam Teller, director of the office of the CEO at The Boring Company, returned multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment. The Chicago Infrastructure Trust didn’t answer multiple inquiries sent through their website, and Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson Michael Claffey said his office was too busy working on a crack in the Lake Shore Drive bridge to respond and didn’t reply to a follow-up email.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Makes Announcement On Express Train Service To O’Hare Airport Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images

But during a public hearing last week, some members of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) said they were concerned that too many details of Musk’s plan were missing to warrant approval. That’s the catch, says CMAP committee member Frank Beal: The Boring Company and the city can’t ink a contract until the National Environmental Policy Act process is done, but without seeing more of Musk’s plans, the NEPA process may be stalled.

This bureaucratic complication is yet another sign that Musk’s O’Hare Express is a long shot. Some local officials and observers are already talking about the project like it’s dead.

“I’d be shocked if there was any traction moving forward,” says Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a Chicago alderman whose 35th Ward is in the proposed path of Boring Company’s tunnel. “To me, it was always a pipe dream, a flight of fancy. But my opinion of it has gotten even worse since I’ve been reading all of these details in the media, a lot of stories that paint a lot of doubt on [Musk’s] ability to deliver this thing. If you look at Elon Musk’s career—he comes off as a grifter.”

Ramirez-Rosa has long been an outspoken critic of Emanuel and the O’Hare Express project, but these days even some of Emanuel’s allies on the council like Villegas are playing it cool.

“I’m still analyzing and doing research,” says Villegas. “I think potentially it would be a great thing for the city, but at the same time, we want to protect the taxpayers.”

Image: The Boring Company

In June, Musk said that one of the reasons he chose Chicago to host the first “publicly useful” Boring Company venture was that “the number of approving authorities is small.”

He had reason to believe that he had automatic approval from one of those authorities — the Chicago City Council. Musk’s bromance with Emanuel is strong. During their joint press conference in Chicago last June, the mayor praised Musk as “one of the great visionaries of our time” and jokingly asked for Boring Company stock.

Emanuel’s decision not to seek re-election (he’s abdicating power to write a book about why mayors rule the world) is disastrous for Musk’s O’Hare Express. Consider that Emanuel never lost a council vote nor exercised his veto power during his nine-year reign. Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, characterizes Chicago’s government as a “rubber stamp” city council. Critics say Emanuel’s power isn’t due to dark magic, it’s dark money. His allies have spent millions of dollars in super PAC money to elect him and aldermanic candidates friendly to his agenda.

But there’s clear evidence that Emanuel is losing his ability to bend the council to his will on big projects. Last month, multiple aldermen rejected an Emanuel-backed $6 billion plan that would have allowed a developer to turn a piece of riverfront into a multi-venue entertainment district with venues co-owned by mega-promoter LiveNation and a soccer stadium fronted by the Ricketts family, the owners of the Chicago Cubs.

There’s another factor gumming up the works of the city council: scandal. Two powerful aldermen, Ed Burke and Danny Solis, have been embroiled in an FBI investigation for corruption — and both consistently vote with Emanuel 100 percent of the time. In the wake of the scandal, Emanuel fired Burke as finance chair; the retiring Solis has disappeared from the public eye for the last three weeks. Since then, officials have urged caution on official actions until after a new mayor and council are elected.

It’s possible that Musk could successfully sell his futuristic tunnel to the 14 mayoral candidates lined up to succeed Emanuel in May, but that prospect looks equally bleak. When asked to their opinion on O’Hare Express, the response from Chicago’s mayors-to-be has ranged from neutrality to open contempt.

“It’s going to die on its own. This thing is goofy,” said former Chicago Public Schools chairman Gery Chico during a candidate forum earlier this month according to the Chicago Tribune. Paul Vallas, another mayoral hopeful, had harsher words: “I’d kill it,” said Vallas according to the Tribune. “I can’t wait to kill it.”

Vallas has since downgraded from murderous glee. “While I am deeply skeptical that the airport express train is feasible on the timetable and terms spelled out, I would [be] happy to be proven wrong—as long as taxpayers are not on the hook for any costs and Mr. Musk fully indemnifies the city for an unexpected damage his big dig might cause,” he told The Verge in an emailed statement.

Mayoral candidate Bill Daley, who’s closely linked to Emanuel and his policies, may be Musk’s best hope. He’s the brother of former Mayor Richard Daley and — coincidentally — the man who replaced Emanuel as Barack Obama’s chief of staff when he left the White House to run for mayor in 2010. But even Daley’s endorsement comes with caveats: “Chicago shouldn’t shy away from innovation, but we need to take a close look at the costs, and we need to be sure the fare structure for the tunnel is closely evaluated,” Daley tells The Verge through a spokesperson.

The Emanuel administration seems to realize that time is of the essence. Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, an Emanuel appointee, is trying to pressure the council to approve a deal with Musk ASAP once a contract with the administration is finalized. If not, she says, Musk may dump Chicago. “We would not like to see this go to waste,” Scheinfeld told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I hope they don’t let it sit idle and risk that [Musk] would walk away if it’s not approved in a timely manner.”

To Alderman Ramirez-Rosa, that’s a high-pressure pitch that sounds too close to a used-car salesman tactic. “Chicago is a world-class city—a city of big plans,” he says. “We have to dream big and accomplish great things but you’ve also got to make sure you do it well.”

Or as Villegas says: “Sometimes the best deal is the one you don’t take.”

Tech

Toyota will be the third automaker to lose the EV tax credit in the US

Tech

Rivian is starting to shed its vaporware status by getting actual trucks to customers

Transportation

Driving the Rivian R1S in semi-responsible fashion

View all stories in Transportation