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Two Years Behind Schedule, Delayed Airport Transit System Upgrade Frustrating O'Hare Travelers; 'Shame On Chicago'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- "You should see the bus lines out here at Terminal 1!" Kalvin tweeted to CBS 2 last week. "Never seen them so long and so inefficient."

Crowds are back at O'Hare, but those long bus lines aren't only because of pent-up travel demand. The shuttles are used instead of the Airport Transit System – also known as the ATS train or People Mover – which was shut down for an overhaul in 2018.

CBS 2 Morning Insider Lauren Victory dug into the finances, and found the project delay costs much more than time and patience.

A cheery video meant to welcome travelers back to O'Hare International Airport is posted to Twitter and so are messages from some unamused passengers.

"Shame on Chicago," writes one user, unhappy that the ATS train is still not running.

The People Mover renovation project is nearly two years behind schedule.

The set-up instead: shuttle buttles that take travelers, like Craig Jahnke, from the terminals to parking lots, the Metra station, or rental car hubs.

"I'll be honest, the buses work really well, but you can never control traffic around O'Hare," said Jahnke, who traveled frequently before the pandemic. He used to leave an hour to make it from the parking lot to the bus to security.

Peter Brunk used to travel out of O'Hare for domestic and international flights, but then he ran out of patience.

"To get to the Metra station via the ATS before the shutdown would've taken all of 7 minutes," said Brunk, who said a 45-minute shuttle bus delay caused him to miss his train once. He flies out of Milwaukee and connects through Chicago now to avoid the $94 Uber he had to take home.

Speaking of receipts, CBS 2 dug into the accounting for the shuttle buses.

The ATS overhaul was supposed to be done in Fall 2019, but as of Spring 2021, the train is still in testing.

Our Freedom of Information Act request showed "costs for busing in lieu of the train being operational." We found that running buses for the extra year and a half delay has added up to at least $45 million. That's roughly $100,000 a day, and the bills will keep coming.

CBS 2 discovered a $21.5 million extension with shuttle bus provider Delaware Cars until October 2021.

Could this mean taking the bus for another five months?

"You can't even get a tram system to work. I'd think twice about coming here," said Jahke, who worries companies might skip business trips to Chicago altogether.

Meanwhile, leisure travel is expected to explode this summer. Let's hope tempers waiting for the buses, the ATS alternative, don't.

CBS 2 shared our financial findings with some members of the Chicago City Council Aviation Committee. The chairman, Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) provided this written statement:

"The O'Hare ATS Project remains in the testing state, and will not return to service until it is operating safely and reliably. O'Hare ATS is a unique system; deploying new rail vehicles to a unique system like this is a one-off exercise that is not done every day. Overall mileage on the fleet has increased as testing has progressed, with total miles now at 280,000 miles compared to 25,000 miles at this time last year, and system stability has significantly improved since the fall. The Chicago Department of Aviation is focused on working with the Contractor to get the ATS project delivered and trains operating in a safe and reliable manner."

Chicago's Department of Aviation tells CBS 2 that shuttle bus expenses were always built into project costs.
CDA did not provide a projected opening date but says the ATS is progressing with testing.
Here is CDA's statement in response to our questions about busing costs:

Shuttle buses are a part of the day-to-day operations for most airports, and O'Hare is no different.  The City operated and will continue to operate a landside busing operation to provide connectivity between O'Hare's passenger terminals and ground transportation functions independent of the status of the Airport Transit System (ATS) expansion and modernization project.  O'Hare has multiple surface parking lots that are not connected to the ATS, and these will continue to require shuttle buses for access to these lots and the passenger terminals.  The City has modified the routes and service profiles for the shuttle bus operations over the years to address customer needs and operational requirements, which includes the current phase where the ATS is not operating with passengers while the testing and commissioning process for the modernized system is taking place.  The City will modify its shuttle bus operations once the ATS returns to service upon the completion of the testing and commissioning activities.

Shuttle buses were assumed to be required to replace ATS operations as part of the extension and modernization project.  The testing and commissioning process, which includes a final test that demonstrates the ability of the system to operate in line with the anticipated scheduled service profile, requires that operations of the old ATS be terminated during the execution of the testing processes.  Shuttle bus operations replacing ATS operations have been treated as project costs. In the meantime, the shuttle bus system is meeting passengers' and employees' day-to day transportation needs.

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