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Elon Musk’s O’Hare express project was a ‘pipe dream’

Elon Musk’s plan to build a “Tesla-in-a-tunnel” high-speed transit system between downtown and O’Hare Airport was a “pipe dream” from the get-go and it’s a good thing that project is dead, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday.

Three months ago, a delegation of city officials returned home after a bumpy but exhilarating California test ride more convinced than ever that Musk’s plan to whisk passengers between downtown and O’Hare in 12 minutes in exchange for a $25 one-way fare would be “transformational for Chicago.”

At the time, Deputy Mayor Bob Rivkin, a former top aide to LaHood in the U.S. Department of Transportation, was the project’s biggest cheerleader.

Rivkin said then he hoped to have a final contract hammered out with Musk in time to present it to the City Council before Mayor Rahm Emanuel left office. Rivkin has since accepted a top job with United Airlines.

But that was before mayoral candidates started dumping on the O’Hare Express project and before the most critical of all — Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle — advanced to the runoff.

Now, the project that Emanuel talked dreamily about when he stood with Musk last summer in the $200 million unfinished basement at Block 37 is all but dead.

“I’m not surprised at all. It’s very expensive. It’s complicated. The environmental impact statement that would have to be done on that will take years. And it would take a real commitment from a mayor to make it happen. I don’t see it happening,” LaHood said.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing [that it’s dead] because there are limited resources in the country and other things.”

Asked whether he believed the project was ever real, he said: “A pipe dream.”

LaHood said Emanuel just might have been ahead of his time.

“Pipe dreams are what helped build the interstate system. Eisenhower had a pipe dream about connecting America with interstates and back then, there were a lot of governors who said, `I’m not having a road come through my state.’ But 50 years later, we got an interstate system,” he said.

LaHood and Emanuel forged a friendship during their days together in Congress that built into such a close and treasured friendship, Emanuel persuaded former President Barack Obama to include LaHood, a Republican, in his first cabinet.

LaHood said Emanuel is “like a brother to me.”

On Friday, LaHood talked openly about how tough it will be for Emanuel to let go of the job he loves as mayor of Chicago and get along without all of the media attention that comes with it.

“He’s gonna wake up the day after the inauguration of the new mayor and say to [wife] Amy, ‘Let’s fly somewhere,’ or, ‘Let’s go somewhere’ or,  ‘What do I do today?’” LaHood said.

“That’s difficult. Of course it is. He’s had a frenzied, very busy life for the last eight years . . . and the day after the new mayor is sworn in, boom. He’s an ex-mayor.”

And that explains why Emanuel is “running through the tape,” as he likes to put it, as if he were still campaigning for the job he is about to relinquish, LaHood said.

“He’s making a lot of announcements. He wants to leave a long, long list of legacy opportunities and projects for his successor. That’s not all bad,” LaHood said.

“Part of it is, he loves this job. He’s loved the opportunity to serve the people of Chicago. And it’s hard to let that go. No question about it.”

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