The case for connecting Chicago’s airports with a rail line

The Active Transportation Alliance argues for a rail line connecting O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport:

Imagine if you could get from Midway to O’Hare in less than 40 minutes on public transit.

Currently, that trip takes well over an hour and involves transferring from the Orange to the Blue Line in the Loop before coming all the way back west towards O’Hare. Building the Airport Connector Express, one of 10 expansion projects in our Transit Future vision, could cut the travel time between Chicago’s two airports in half…

The benefit to business travelers and tourists looking to transfer flights is the most obvious benefit of the project, but definitely not the only one. Even more importantly, the line would connect communities across western Cook County to the two major job centers, greatly boosting job access and opportunities for many working class families. It could also reduce traffic congestion on highways and major arterial streets as more people choose to ride transit as it becomes a more convenient option…

These communities and many others like them are not well served by the current hub-and-spoke model of the region’s transit system. Some are connected to downtown by suburban Metra service but we know not all jobs are located downtown.

This should have happened years ago as these are two of the busiest airports in the United States. I can imagine three reasons why it has not happened:

1. Money. Who is going to pay for it? What would the revenues be from passengers using it? However, I don’t think this is the primary reason. Given the projections of economic growth that are sometimes trotted out for other projects, I bet this could be justified (particularly if you account for reduced traffic).

2. For various reasons, the Chicago area has been slow to build mass transit lines to connect the spokes of the hub-and-spoke train model that arose first with railroads in the mid-1800s and then was reinforced with the CTA lines that converge in the Loop. The mass transit in the region suggests people primarily want to head downtown even as job centers have developed throughout the region including Oak Brook, Naperville, Schaumburg, and Northbrook. The highways are a little better; the Tri-State Tollway was one of the first highways to open and I-355 became the next ring out. However, I-355 doesn’t go all the way around (even its extension was limited and covers an area that was not yet very dense) and the proposed Fox Valley Expressway was never constructed.

3. Perhaps there are some issues to work out across these suburban communities. The majority of this proposed track would be outside Chicago city limits and cooperation from nearby suburbs is needed. But, suburbs don’t always agree on projects like these that could bring changes.

Aurora fire illustrates need for redundancy in key infrastructure systems

A fire at an Aurora FAA facility caused all sorts of airport problems in Chicago and across the country:

The FAA said it’s working “closely with the airlines that serve the Chicago-area airports to minimize disruptions for travelers” and expects to “continue to increase the traffic flow at those two airports over the weekend.” FAA officials did not respond Saturday to requests for more information.At least 778 flights had been canceled Saturday out of both airports by just before 3 p.m., according to Flightstats, a website that monitors air traffic.

O’Hare was able to operate at around 60 percent of its usual Saturday capacity, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Because of the fire at the Aurora facility, O’Hare’s control tower can’t receive or send to other control centers the airlines’ automated flight plans, so airlines are having to fax them to O’Hare. That’s requiring two controllers to staff every position at the main O’Hare tower, and had to close the auxiliary north tower at the airport, Church said.

While this is certainly an unusual accident, it illustrates the fragility of some of our key infrastructure: the behind-the-scenes equipment and people that keep airplanes flying and airports operating. As many have noted, flying has become quite hum-drum in the United States in recent decades and this is partly due to the general efficiency of this system. No one likes delays or lost luggage or maintenance problems but it is still pretty remarkable the number of flights in the air on a daily basis and the relative ease of traveling across long distances.

What we need are some redundancies in these key systems in case something does go wrong. As the article notes, the whole system isn’t shut down because flight plans can be sent by fax. But, there isn’t a quicker way – like digital photos or digital scans – to do this? Can’t this be done with one person? But, building redundant systems might often cost significant money upfront, a luxury many systems don’t have. At the least, this incident in Aurora should lead to some rethinking of what can be done better in the future if a key facility breaks down.

Why is Midway nowhere close to the food options of O’Hare?

Eater rates the restaurants at O’Hare and Midway Airports and it isn’t even close: O’Hare is a lot better. Here is the top 8 at O’Hare:

1. Tortas Frontera;  2. Wicker Park Sushi Bar; 3. Wolfgang Puck Cafe; 4. Berghoff Cafe; 5. La Tapenade; 6. Big Bowl; 7. Beaudevin; 8. Garrett Popcorn.

City institutions plus big names at O’Hare. In contrast, the top 8 at Midway seem like what you would find at a shopping mall food court:

1. Manny’s; 2. Potbelly; 3. Pegasus on the Fly; 4. Harry Caray’s Seventh Inning Stretch; 5. Lalo’s; 6. Gold Coast Dogs; 7. Reilly’s Daughter

Perhaps there are some good reasons for this like more passengers at O’Hare (the 6th most passengers in the world), more space at O’Hare (more and bigger terminals plus more passengers provides more room for restaurants while Midway has one food court and then some scattered small options), and a wider range of passengers at O’Hare (Southwest dominates Midway, more first-class and international passengers at O’Hare). One way to boost Midway’s profile would be to improve these food options. It is the smaller airport and has more budget flight options but it was the first passenger airport in Chicago and has a unique place as such an urban airport in a global city.

But, knowing that this is Chicago, I wonder how much food contracts differ between the two airports. Even as O’Hare is more lucrative, why doesn’t Midway have any major name or food choice? Harry Carey’s might have the biggest name recognition (ironic it is located in the South Side airport) but it isn’t exactly known in the restaurant world for great food. Is there something odd about how restaurants at these airports are chosen?