Where are the trains in $8.5 billion O'Hare plan?

March 01, 2018    O’Hare is in the news again. The City of Chicago is seeking approval of its $8.5 billion airport expansion plan, which we first told you about in October. The plan would demolish the aging Terminal 2 and replace it with a new building that would link Terminals 1 and 3 and form a “global terminal” to serve American and United. Two new satellite terminals would join the existing mid-field concourse, connected to the main terminals by a tunnel. Terminal 5, currently the international terminal, would be dedicated to Delta and other carriers.

Things seemed to be going well for the City’s plan until American Airlines balked over a last-minute change to 5 gates that they were to share with United. The western suburbs are also wondering what happened to their promised “western access.” This parking and security screening facility would have allowed travelers to enter the airport from the west, then proceed to the terminals on the opposite side of the field by an underground people mover. The latest proposal scales this back to an employee-only parking lot.

And we are wondering: where are the trains? This proposal falls short of improving access to O’Hare, and not just from the west. Mayor Emanuel would like to see express trains from downtown serve the airport, but this proposal doesn’t mention trains at all.

As we are obliged to point out, O’Hare is not just Chicago’s airport. It is the Midwest’s connection to the world. Businesses and travelers around the Midwest, from Schaumburg, Cedar Rapids, Lafayette or Kalamazoo, want easier access to O’Hare. Travelers from around the region would be better off reaching O'Hare on a fast train, instead of clogging our highways or occupying precious airport gates with tiny short-haul jets.

Our CrossRail Chicago plan includes an improved train station on the Metra North Central line, part of the airport’s new consolidated rental car garage. That’s still a great idea, especially because it can be done relatively quickly, and creates a connection to downtown Chicago and points south and east.

In the long term, as part of this $8.5 billion plan, trains should go directly to a station inside the new global terminal. That tunnel could then continue under the airfield to the west, passing by the new western parking lot. Tracks could continue west along Route 390, where the Illinois Tollway has reserved a right-of-way for rail, serving business centers in Itasca and Schaumburg. Or the tunnel could head toward the southwest edge of the airport and join the existing Metra Milwaukee West line to offer the communities along it a one-seat ride to the airport. Trains should also be able to connect to northbound tracks for destinations like Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.

The City of Chicago's plan aspires to rebuild O’Hare for growth in the 21st century, but it can’t really do that without improving access to the airport, and that means laying tracks for fast, frequent and reliable trains from all around the Midwest.