Chicago's Hyperloop Announcement Met With Questions

Jun 15, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 6:05 pm
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Chicago is famous for its L, the transit system of mostly elevated trains. Soon it might have the X, a high-speed transit system some are calling Tesla in a tunnel. NPR's David Schaper has more.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: When traffic is bumper to bumper as it often is, it can take well over an hour to get between downtown Chicago and O'Hare Airport. A ride on the L takes 40 to 45 minutes when there aren't delays. But yesterday Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Elon Musk, founder of high-tech innovators Tesla and SpaceX, announced plans for a new system - self-driving electric vehicles that would zip passengers through tunnels at close to 150 miles an hour, cutting the trip between downtown and O'Hare to just 12 minutes. Here's Mayor Emanuel.

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RAHM EMANUEL: That 12-minute ride is three songs on your iPhone. It will take longer to get through security at O'Hare than it will be to get to O'Hare.

SCHAPER: Emanuel says by dramatically shortening the trip to and from the airport, Chicago is better positioning itself for the future.

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EMANUEL: The airport's a major employer. The central business district's a major employer. What this really does in that 12-minute ride is make that a single physical space. No other city in the United States has that.

SCHAPER: And Emanuel insists Chicago taxpayers won't spend a dime on the project. Elon Musk says his Boring Company will finance it and take on all the risk.

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ELON MUSK: If we succeed, it's going to be a great thing for the city. And if we fail, well, I guess me and others will lose a bunch of money.

SCHAPER: Musk says his company's boring technique will dig the tunnels many times faster and cheaper than conventional tunneling. But both that technology and the autonomous vehicles are unproven. The company is drilling a test tunnel near Los Angeles. And while Tesla has had some success with self-driving cars, these transit vehicles are still under development. Nonetheless, Musk says the company could begin work on the Chicago tunnels later this year.

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MUSK: I feel very confident that the technologies that need be sold here are, while difficult and new, significantly less difficult than, say, what we do at SpaceX or at Tesla.

SCHAPER: But its estimated cost of just a billion dollars has many experts skeptical.

HANI MAHMASSANI: No, that's on the low side. That's definitely on the low side.

SCHAPER: And that's putting it mildly, says professor Hani Mahmassani, director of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University. He says new rail lines above ground can cost upwards of $500 million a mile. This project would cover 16 miles and be completely underground, which can cost even more.

MAHMASSANI: When you're tunneling, of course there's always uncertainties from a, you know, sheer technical perspective.

SCHAPER: Engineers say there are always surprises when drilling through hard rock and shifting soils, along with difficulties in supporting and venting the tunnel structures. And Kate Lowe, a professor of transportation planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says big transportation infrastructure projects like this almost always come with huge cost overruns.

KATE LOWE: And I find it unlikely that the public sector is not going to be asked in the future to cover a funding gap.

SCHAPER: Some Chicago aldermen raise similar concerns saying they want more oversight. And they're apprehensive about backing a flashy new project when the city's aging transit infrastructure has so many other needs. But Northwestern's Mahmassani says if Musk makes good on his promises, the high-speed system could be a game changer for urban transportation.

MAHMASSANI: Because, you know, almost every major metropolitan area has an airport access problem in this country as well as around the world.

SCHAPER: It's a big risk. But a superfast link between the airport and downtown could pay off for Chicago in a big way. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.