How Chicago Spent $400M On a Subway Superstation to Nowhere

Under the original concept, the "superstation" was to have been the departure point for special trains to Chicago’s airports

Imagine a scenario where you bury a lot of your hard earned money in the yard, and never see it again. Better yet, imagine giving that money to someone else, who buries it with promises of big returns which never happen.


You’ve already done it.

The site is deep below Chicago’s famous Block 37 between State and Dearborn at Randolph. A decade ago, the Chicago Transit Authority wanted to launch non-stop train service from the Loop to O’Hare and Midway airports. But the closest the service came to reality was the shell of a mass transit "superstation" below Block 37 between the Red and Blue subway lines. The project was shelved, amid mounting costs and questions about funding and the very feasibility of the concept.

And 10 years later, you’re still paying the bills.

"It was definitely something that was ill conceived, ill planned, that was premature in beginning construction," says the Civic Federation’s Lawrence Msall. “It’s hard to come up with a description of that kind of incompetence.”

Under the original concept, the "superstation" was to have been the departure point for special trains to Chicago’s airports, non-stop service which would have featured specially-designed cars with provisions for luggage and greater comfort. But a consultant’s study reveals that even when the station opened, travelers would have been forced to ride on the same Blue Line tracks, behind slow-moving trains making every stop.

With no time savings, whatsoever.

Inside Chicago's $440M Subway Superstation to Nowhere

Full express service was an expensive, pie-in-the-sky option which was never funded or even fully engineered. Estimates at the time (in 2006 dollars), put the cost somewhere between $771 million and $1.5 billion. The study said the project would have required heavy construction along 3.7 miles of the Kennedy Expressway, including the re-engineering of at least 11 overpasses and two dozen on/off ramps. Train stations at both airports would have been reconstructed at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. The land acquisition alone would have cost at least $100 million.

The study estimated the cost of nine, specially-equipped trains at $67 million.

Msall and the Civic Federation estimate the project’s cost so far, at $400 million and counting.

"The original bonds were going to be 12 years," he said. "And when the Chicago Transit Authority refinanced those bonds, they pushed out the payments another 12 years."

All of that for an unfinished station which is locked up and dark, and which will almost certainly never be used.

"The taxpayers and the riders of the CTA will be paying for this project, 20 years after it was stopped, after they stopped construction," he said. "And it does not appear any time in the reasonable future that terminal will be of benefit, or will be operational."

The CTA declined NBC 5 Investigates’ request to visit the station, citing security and safety concerns. But photos obtained through a Freedom of Information request show a bleak shell of a train station, its concrete platforms evident, but no tracks and no trains.

Just mothballing the project cost the agency over $40 million. Management at the time said that was necessary, on the off chance a private vendor might come forward in the future to attempt completing it.

"It’s absolutely wacko," says Greg Hinz, political writer at Crain’s Chicago Business. "Somebody in power wanted it, so they did it."

Two years ago, Hinz and photographer Stephen J. Serio became two of the few outsiders to ever see the station. Read Greg Hinz' full story in Crain's Chicago Business.

"If you can imagine this endless dark space, so big you can’t see the end of it," he said. "Big high pillars, water over in the corner, and every so often, this distinct, rumbling from the train upstairs."

"It’s a concrete shell essentially. They have the outside of it and they have a platform in concrete, but they don’t have anything to make it look nice and usable."

CTA declined NBC5’s requests for an interview, but in a statement, they noted that the station was the work of others who were no longer at the agency.

"The Block 37 superstation was conceived of, and constructed, nearly a decade ago, under a previous administration, which halted construction seven years ago," they said. "The current CTA administration had no involvement in those decisions."

The agency noted that since 2011, current CTA administration had put no additional funding toward the station, and that maintenance costs were “extremely minimal.”

"The CTA has no imminent plans for the Block 37 superstation, though it remains an asset with potential future value," they said. "The CTA’s current capital priorities are focused on modernizing and rebuilding existing assets, as evidenced by the unprecedented investment since 2011 in CTA bus and train service across the city."

They noted that since 2011, other projects, including the $425 million Red Line South reconstruction and numerous station rehabs, have been completed on time and within budget.

Two years after the project was effectively scrapped, then-mayor Richard Daley appointed a blue ribbon commission to study the feasibility of privatizing express service to O’Hare. Commission chairman Lester Crown says he doesn’t remember the group ever holding a meeting.

"There was a desire to do it, but there never was a way to accomplish it," Crown said. "From a physical standpoint, it just didn’t seem possible."

The Civic Federation’s Msall suggests the entire affair is a cautionary tale about the need for both lawmakers and citizens to be included in the decision making on such grand projects.

"They began construction of a project before they knew how they would pay for it in full, or what it would really look like," he said. "It’s hard, looking back, to remember what the urgency of building a superstation was."

There should have been public hearings that really vetted this project,” Msall said. “When the city and the CTA are going to make such an enormous expenditure, there should be transparency, there should be debate.”

"This is a classic example, of where a failure to plan, became a plan to fail," he said.

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