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Would Anyone Deny the People Mover Project at O’Hare Has Really Gone Off the Rails?

Many more people are traveling again which means O’Hare is busier now than it has been in the last 15 months or so. The good news for those who need or want to travel – it’s much safer now that vaccination rates are steadily increasing in the U.S. The bad news, shuttle buses are still being used as the Airport Transit System (ATS or People Mover) which was shut down in 2018 is still not operational. For nearly 3 years, shuttle buses have been used to take travelers from the terminals to parking lots, rental car areas, or the Metra O’Hare train station.

In May of 2021, a passenger traveling through Chicago, tweeted Lauren Victory, of CBS News Chicago, to get a status project update. Being familiar with the project delays, she appeared to be the right choice. According to this article, the tweet came from a traveler who was recently surprised to still see very long lines in Terminal 1 to catch a ride to the remote parking/rental car area. In Lauren's reporting in 2020, she stated that Jamie Rhee, Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner, said they were close to fixing the issue. Because of the lack of transparency with the CDA, I wonder what she meant last year about being 'close?' Lauren wrote in '20 that a mechanical issue requires the entire ATS fleet to be retrofitted. What was the mechanical issue? Was this just discovered in 2020 when the project kicked off in 2018? Why has she refused to do interviews? At what point should a public official need to provide a transparent update so consumers know much more about when this project will be completed?

Based on my online research, Lauren had written an article in '20 about the delays but her follow almost a year later appears to be a result of being tweeted by an O'Hare traveler. If this is the case, why would more follow-ups had occurred? Especially a critical piece of infrastructure at one of the world's busiest airports? It reminds me of an article I read about online and print media, with less ad revenue, investigative journalism, especially of the local kind may suffer.

As a result of the WGN investigation, Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded to further delays in the project. It’s been well over 2 and 1/2 years of being out of service even though the contact to upgrade the ATS called for minimal disruption to travelers.

WGN reported that a winter storm in February revealed the new trains failed to operate during a winter storm in February and the overall project was “simply regressing.”

Despite the fact the project was supposed to be completed long before the pandemic, Lightfoot blamed Covid border closures for slowing progress.

“The key part to get equipment up and running was in Canada and the border was closed, so we couldn’t get the part back here in Chicago,” she said.  “We can certainly get you an update on the status of the project. But the border being closed is significant problem for that progress and why it went offline.”

This report also stated that during Covid, the U.S. Canadian border had remained open for freight shipping.

Imagine that, as a result of a winter storm in February, key equipment needed to be added to ensure its safe operation. Who would have thought such a thing could occur in Chicago or anywhere in the Midwest?

Lori Lightfoot blamed Covid for the delay. Typical political response, don’t take any ownership, blame it on someone else or some other thing. Just to be clear, the CDA also blamed Covid for the delay, at least the Mayor and CDA have their talking points down.

If I have my facts correct, this should have been completed in 2019 which was before Covid hit. So I think her blaming Covid is ‘weak sauce’ and unacceptable. An airport spokesperson also said the supply chain for key components and parts is being delayed due to Covid primarily in 2020. Wait, if this had been completed with the time frame, we’d not have to blame Covid and the supply chain for another delay. I just can’t understand how the Department of Aviation had not properly mapped out this project with engineers from the city of Chicago to ensure they had all the right materials to get this done on time. Is it fair to say the initial reaction to this continued project delay could be the failure of the CDA to properly planning on this project?

On several occasions over these last 3 years, I’ve seen hundreds of travelers in a queue inside the lower terminal waiting for a bus to take them to the remote parking area or rental car hub. Buses run but they are not exactly aligned to the ebb of flow of travelers leaving the airport.

According to this article, Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee declined an interview, but shared a letter in which she described a mechanical issue that required the entire ATS fleet to be retrofitted. In July of '20, the city would not give CBS 2 a new projected end date.

“We are very close,” she wrote in October of ‘19. Nine months later, there is still no guarantee of when the People Mover will move people again.

After Jamie Rhee wrote in October of '19 that they are very close to finishing the project and as I mentioned earlier, in July of '20, Lauren Victory contacted her on the status of this delay. Through this communication last year, the CDA Commissioner would not give CBS 2 a new projected end date. Now, we are close to June of '21 and it appears there's still a lot of uncertainty on what mechanical issues still need to be addressed and of course, the project's completion date.

Just to be clear, I have not even focused on the financial aspects of this project. That's another article for another day. My focus was on the lack of transparency among City officials and why this project, which was scheduled to be completed in November 2019, is still not finished.

Would any logical citizen deny the People Mover project at O’Hare has gone off the rails? It's anyone's guess when this will become operational? I hope for some time in '21 but if history is any guide, I will not hold my breath. The project delays with the ATS are similar to many road construction projects around the Chicago area. In terms of this particular project, some might argue that Lightfoot's handling of this project is reason enough for her not to be re-elected (Lightfoot took office on May 20, 2019). And people wonder why Chicago is considered a second city (at the very best), if not a third.

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