If we end up some day booking rocket tours to Mars, treating neurological disorders with implantable brain chips or heading from condo to office in pods that zoom underground in tubes Jetsons-style, we may have Elon Musk to thank.
The billionaire innovator has had his hiccups, but he’s also built up a good deal of street (and atmospheric) cred. Space X, his space transport/aerospace manufacturer, has sent several cargo missions to the International Space Station and launched the first orbital rocket to safely land back on Earth. Tesla, his electric vehicle startup, is now worth more than GM or Ford, in terms of market capitalization.
That resume intrigues Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is keen on one of Musk’s ideas — getting from A to B in Formula One-fast underground pods, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Emanuel is determined to realize his dream of a high-speed rail line connecting downtown with O’Hare International Airport, and the mayor thinks the missing link could be Musk’s idea of passenger pods moving through a subterranean superhighway.
Musk first suggested the idea for Los Angeles, where he’s headquartered, though there’s no indication that LA is on board. Emanuel recently sent aides to Los Angeles to explore Musk’s idea and his interest in a Chicago version, and has now invited Musk’s team to Chicago.
Musk’s idea has two major components. First, one of his newest ventures, The Boring Company, touts new tunnel-drilling technology that it claims is cheaper to use because it relies on electric power rather than diesel and bores narrower tunnels, which cuts down on construction costs. Second, instead of traditional train cars on rail lines, mini-buslike vehicles on electric-powered sleds would zip through the tunnels at speeds of up to 125 mph.
All systems go? Not exactly.
Musk’s idea has vision and heft, no doubt about that. We love big, bold ideas — especially those that presciently solve problems we know we’ll face years down the road. In late June we touted the foresight that yesteryear’s leaders had in forging ahead with Deep Tunnel, the network of reservoirs and pipes built to divert excess water from basements and streets, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It’s still under construction and won’t be finished until 2029, but it already helps and it’s scary to think where the region would be without it.
A new conduit from downtown to O’Hare — be it high-speed rail or subterranean passenger pods — is a big, bold idea. But beyond its intuitive appeal (Distance plus speed? Cool!) we’re still waiting for the mayor to explain why Chicago needs it. High-speed rail to O’Hare has been talked about for years, and Emanuel revived that talk in February when he called the project “essential for our city’s future.”
Missing from the mayor’s call to action was any kind of evidence that there would be enough customer demand for the service, as well as any data on exactly how much time would be saved for travelers, compared with existing Blue Line service to and from the airport. We wondered at the time whether the city would be better off updating Blue Line service to spruce up the experience for businesspeople bound for O’Hare, an undertaking that probably could be done at a fraction of the cost and inconvenience to the rest of the city.
Right now, talks between the mayor and Musk are strictly exploratory. It’s just chatter. At some point, however, Emanuel should circle back to the original question. Do we really need another mode of mass transit from downtown to O’Hare? And if he can justify it, how much would it cost, how much inconvenience would its construction heap on the city, and how much more would a tax-battered populace have to shoulder to pay for it?
What if his answers don’t cut it? Then his choice should be simple and Muskian. Abort!