Toronto’s Troubled Airport Express Train Could Be Cautionary Tale for Chicago

In about a month, two companies competing to build an express train service from O’Hare International Airport to the Loop will submit proposals to the city. The project is slated to be 100 percent privately funded, with no taxpayer risk, according to the mayor. But a similar project started off with similar goals in a comparable city to the north, and it didn’t exactly work out as planned.

Some local transportation experts are saying Toronto’s experience serves as a cautionary tale for Chicago.

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The city opened a new express train from Pearson International Airport to their Union Station in the center of town. It was slated to be operated by a private company, but a lot went wrong. For starters, ridership was a fraction of what the city had projected. Also, the regional transportation authority, Metrolinx, had to take it over, subsidizing each ride to the tune of $11, which cost taxpayers last year just over $30 million Canadian dollars.

“Toronto is thriving, and if Toronto can’t support an express service with no competing rail, I don’t know why we could have a financially profitable line in Chicago,” said Cate Lowe, professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We don’t have a model of profitable transit service. So if the public sector has historically subsidized transit, I find it implausible that we’re not going to have to bail this project out.”

Lowe also says she questions the methodology that Chicago used in projecting the demand for an express train.

Since its initial stumble, Toronto has made some big changes to its train. When it opened in 2015, the fares cost $27.50 one-way with cash, or $19 with one of their transit cards. But since so few riders opted to pay that amount, Metrolinx lowered the price to $12.35 (cash) and $9.25 (fare card). They also opened a handful of stations along the Union-Pearson route, making it more of a local train line. Metrolinx spokesperson Scott Money says ridership has seen a 56-percent increase over last year and the system is moving 300,000 passengers per year – but it will have to be subsidized in perpetuity.

Officials in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office say they have done extensive studies over the last year, and that Toronto’s projections were off and Chicago won’t make that  mistake. Plus, they’re leaving it to private companies to figure out how to turn a profit – the two companies bidding for the project are Tesla founder Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which is proposing boring a new tunnel between the Loop superstation at Block 37 and O’Hare; and a group called O’Hare Express LLC. 

Chicago Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin says Chicago is not Toronto.

“Chicago is different from Toronto, we have a bigger airport and bigger central business district,” Rivkin said. “The demand for a service here is greater but the cost is not greater. We think this is feasible, but let’s put it out to a private market and see what the experts in infrastructure and public private partnerships from all over the world have to say.”

The city sent out a request for proposal that demands the construction and operation be privately funded. City officials have floated prices similar to what Toronto first charged, saying it has to be less than the cost of an Uber or cab from O’Hare. But some aldermen are complaining that too little is known about this. There have been no public briefings or hearings and it’s starting to remind them of what happened right before the city sold the parking meters.

“I think there’s a lot that could go wrong, and that’s why we’ve asked for hearings to find out what we’re getting ourselves into,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a frequent mayoral critic and one of only five aldermen to vote against the much-maligned parking meter deal. “It touches every part of the city, so there would have to be costs borne by the city or other taxing bodies.”

Emanuel on Wednesday said that for every Toronto, one can point to several other cities that have made an express train work.

“Hong Kong has an express rail, they’re doing pretty good,” Emanuel said. “So there are cautionary tales and examples of what the benefits are. All are things we can learn from.”

Lowe notes that Toronto didn’t even have a local train serving the airport and center of the city, like Chicago’s Blue Line CTA train. Meanwhile, the mayor on Wednesday announced the “new blue” project – which will aim to improve service on the line and trim the ride from the Loop to O’Hare to 35 minutes. An express train would narrow that trip to 20 minutes, but cost several times more. The question remains: will travelers pay for it?

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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