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July 26, 2018

Anything But Boring

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Unless you have recently been vacationing on Mars, it is tough to have missed the thrilling news that Elon Musk’s Boring Company has been awarded the contract to construct an express train from O’Hare International Airport to downtown Chicago. A project that would bring back to life the abandoned “superstation” at State and Washington, underneath Block 37. This innovative mode of transit would feature the construction of an 18-mile underground tunnel populated by autonomous pods traveling at speeds as high as 150 miles per hour. Even better? Boring’s ultra-aggressive schedule aims to have the trains operating within the next 2 years.

A 12-minute train ride from O’Hare to the Loop for $25? Sign me up! Let’s face it, sitting in a car or cab during rush hour trying to get to the airport from downtown (and vice versa) can be a nightmare. If you can pull it off in under an hour, immediately go purchase a lottery ticket. Alternatively, while the perennially-crowded Blue Line will eventually get you there and for less money, it is not the most pleasant ride–especially when traveling with cumbersome luggage.

In addition to the convenience and economic benefits, Musk is planning to self-finance this billion-dollar (estimated) project, so what is the risk? Assuming it all pans out, this is the exact type of innovation that the city needs in order to compete on a global scale. Is this an absolute necessity? Of course not. However, I fail to see the harm and, though it is the state of the world today, it still surprises me that some people are complaining about this proposal.

The skepticism is understandable; after all, this revolutionary technology has never been utilized before. Previous deep tunnel projects have cost significantly more money to construct and have taken much longer to build. Furthermore, local and state governments have not really had a chance yet to pick apart the details and determine how this will be regulated and policed. Chances are high that there will be cost overruns and unanticipated surprises along the way that will delay the completion of the project. How do we really know there will be no disruption on the ground while digging is happening below? Will there be environmental issues? Or the inevitable legal issues that always seem to arise in Chicago? What if the Boring Company abandons the project halfway through, leaving us with a partially-built tunnel to nowhere? Will taxpayers ultimately end up being hit with some of the bill, no matter what is promised? A lot of people’s support, including my own, would disappear if this were to happen.

From a real estate standpoint, though, the impact of this completed project would be tremendous. I can envision the marketing campaigns now: *insert address here* – just 20 minutes away from O’Hare airport! This innovation would be yet another strong reason for businesses and corporate headquarters to locate or relocate downtown. Paying attention Amazon?

Bringing the long-abandoned State/Washington train station back to life would also be a huge development. The increase in pedestrian traffic would cause interest, as well as, real estate values to surge in this sleepy mall, not to mention the surrounding areas. Count on this to be another excuse to justify driving up rents and sales prices of assets.

Chicagoans should be rooting for this transformative project to succeed, not only for the reasons mentioned above but also for where else this technology could lead. If this can really be built for “only 1 billion dollars,” it could lead to the rapid development of similar express trains, not only to other parts of the city but also to suburbs and even other states as well. Given Chicago’s prime central location and numerous attributes, it could arguably stand to benefit more than any other American city.

All in all, I argue that this is an idea worth exploring. Once the potential pitfalls are worked through to the reasonable satisfaction of all parties, let the boring begin!