CHICAGO (CBS) — It started with a frustrated viewer, angry to see his tax dollars not at work. Why isn’t the People Mover at O’Hare International Airport running yet?

The Morning Insiders have been waiting on an update from the city since last month. CBS 2’s Lauren Victory went to gauge progress for herself.

They promised smooth sailing into and out of O’Hare, but a simple trip to the terminal has been a bumpy ride. The airport’s upgraded Airport Transit System – also known as the People Mover – is still being tested, a renovation that’s creeping close to a year overdue.

“Boy this has been dragging out quite some time,” said DePaul University transportation professor Joe Schwieterman.

He explained the multi-million dollar People Mover project is more than an airline-to-airline connection. The new system will also provide access to a rental car hub and the Metra station at O’Hare, but for now, travelers using the rental car facility or the O’Hare Transfer stop on the Metra North Central Service are greeted with a sign saying the People Mover is closed, and instead have to ride a bus that takes a much more circuitous route to the terminal.

“It sets a wrong image for our airport. For a lot of people, that’s their first experience with O’Hare,” Schwieterman said.

The People Mover shut down weekday service in May 2018, and closed altogether in January 2019. Renovations were originally expected to be completed by Fall 2019.

Then the ATS re-opening was pushed to before Thanksgiving 2019, followed by another delay to early 2020. Now? Who knows?

“O’Hare is a massive property, and people need predictability,” Schwieterman said.

Instead, travelers are forced to use shuttle buses that were often mired in traffic before the pandemic.

“When you have a substitution for a short period, it’s okay; but, for a long period, it really starts to affect just the flow and the efficiency of the airport,” Schwieterman said.

Chicagoans are noticing.

Replies to tweets about the ATS closure include: “When will this be done?” “any eta?” and “how is it possible this still isn’t done?”

“There is a reasonable period for a private company to get a system back operating. I think we’re beyond that,” Schwieterman said.

Parsons Construction, the project’s contractor, was initially awarded a $310 million contract for the job. But CBS 2’s analysis of vendor payments shows the project is $25 million over budget and counting.

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.

“We are very close,” she wrote in October.

Nine months later, there is still no guarantee of when the People Mover will move people again.

Test trains have been running since last summer, although with some suspensions due to the mechanical issue with the fleet.

CDA blamed the pandemic for the latest round of delays. A spokesperson said key people on the project were stuck in Canada because of travel restrictions.

“Despite COVID-19, which has limited the contractor’s ability to send experts to the site, exercising of rail vehicles has continued. In fact, total mileage on the fleet has increased 150% in the last eight weeks with multiple trains operating simultaneously for several hours on most days. On-track testing remains critical and requires on-site presence from systems experts to formally complete,” a spokesperson stated.

The spokesperson also said manufacturing closures also made it difficult to get some supplies.

“The ATS modernization project is in the testing and systems integration phase and will return to service as soon as the system is operating safely and reliably. Work is progressing, but the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unforeseen impact, with key personnel from the responsible project contractor subject to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada and between states, as well as various closures to manufacturing facilities that supply necessary parts for the system. While we’re eager to return the ATS to service, current passenger demand is low and the airport’s supplemental shuttle busing system has been able to get passengers between terminals and to-and-from the Multimodal Facility effectively.”

City officials also noted the project is not funded by any state, local, or federal taxes, but instead from revenue generated by rental car fees, airline fees, passenger facility charges collected on most airline tickets at O’Hare, and rent paid by rental car companies.

The city would not give CBS 2 a new projected end date.

 

Lauren Victory