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Little-known ‘Magic Road’ speeds VIPs, conventioneers

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Updated: August 23, 2013 6:20AM

The big black Chevy SUV headed east on 25th Street, then abruptly turned left under the Stevenson Expy. and paused before a steel gate. The armed driver lowered his window and inserted a plastic card into a scanning device. The steel gate slid away and the car roared onto an empty stretch of pristine highway, a straight shot into the heart of downtown Chicago.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“The Magic Road!” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle laughed, explaining that it is a special highway that permits government officials to speed on their way without having to suffer traffic delays.

“Rahm Emanuel calls it the ‘Bat Cave,’ ” she said, while I was still trying to digest discovery of a highway I hadn’t known about paralleling Michigan Avenue.

We had spent the morning at the Cook County jail, gazing in sorrow at a sclerotic legal system that grinds the lives of young black Chicagoans into a grim powder with agonizing, expensive slowness. The always candid Preckwinkle — perhaps the only politician in Chicago who says what she thinks and doesn’t sand every thought into a smooth pebble of guile before gingerly letting it slip from her fingers — of course would spill the beans on the secret highway.

Or the not-so-secret highway.

“Convention buses use it too,” she added, as we flashed by 18th Street, then 14th, as I twisted in my seat, trying to get my bearings.

Built for conventioneers

Welcome to the McCormick Place Busway, the most obscure road in Chicago, a two-lane, 2.5-mile thoroughfare constructed in 2002 on the Illinois Central right-of-way for $43 million. The road was paid for by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

The original idea was to speed conventioneers attending trade shows from McCormick Place to the Loop. The busway does that admirably. A trip that takes 25 minutes in traffic up Lake Shore Drive can be tossed off in eight.

Naturally, politicians would want in on this. We went under McCormick Place, flashed past the South Loop condo development where former Mayor Richard M. Daley lived before moving to North Michigan Avenue. Preckwinkle pointed out a convenient gated exit.

“They built the road when he was mayor,” she observed.

Hmmm, thought I. Not a lot of hotel buses filled with conventioneers pulling off there. The road cuts right through and below the Art Institute, ending at Lower Randolph.

Preckwinkle might be the only one bold enough to take a reporter on it. But she can’t be the only official making use of the road.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who does indeed sometimes drive himself, doesn’t drive himself on the busway.

“You won’t see the governor in the driver’s seat on that road,” said his press secretary, Brooke Anderson. “But his security detail sometimes takes it.”

The mayor’s office confirmed both that he uses the road and he calls it the “Bat Cave.”

“He does,” said Tarrah Cooper, the mayor’s press secretary. “Occasionally.”

She was quick to echo that it’s mainly a route for convention buses.

“That’s who primarily uses it, during the convention there are tons of buses.”

She scoffed at the idea that the road is unknown.

“It’s not magic,” she said. “People know about it.”

Of course they do, though it took some digging to find the corner of official Chicago in charge of the road. McCormick Place brass said the Chicago Department of Transportation runs it, but CDOT spokesman Pete Scales said he knows nothing about it and suggested I try Streets and Sanitation.

“I just found out about it a month ago,” said Anne Sheahan, Streets and San spokeswoman, who has been with the city 10 years. She at first suggested CDOT runs it. “I’m pretty sure we don’t.” She thought about it further, and pointed me toward the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.


“OEMC assigns access cards to authorized personnel in consultation with McCormick Place security and the city’s public safety agencies,” said Melissa Stratton, director of news affairs for OEMC. “The road is used primarily by buses transporting people to and from McCormick Place. Metra frequently uses the road to access its equipment, rail yard and infrastructure.”

She reeled off a list of others who use it — city maintenance workers, Art Institute employees accessing the museum’s loading dock, public safety personnel, McCormick Place contractors “on a case-by-case basis.” Buses taking Bears fans from remote parking to Solider Field for football games also use it. And while politicians such as the mayor and the Cook County board president do use it, Stratton insisted it is not generally used by any random Chicago pol.

Which seems true if you position yourself by the Randolph Street entrance and watch the cars come and go. Most drivers leaning out of their windows to use their cards seem neither top-flight politicians nor steely security sorts, but catering trucks — from a party at the Art Institute — and assorted mid-level underlings going about their business.

People in other cities already seem to know all about it.

“We do market it quite heavily,” said David Causton, general manager of McCormick Place, who views the road as a draw for the $6 billion worth of trade-show business that comes to Chicago. “We see it as an absolute asset. The advantage it offers is lower cost. It obviously makes getting here faster, which is part of a pleasant experience for the attendee. Plus we don’t have to have as many buses to move people because the buses can go quickly on the private road, so they carry more people in a shorter time. It’s a true time saver.”

I bet it is.

“It may not be well-known by locals that live here,” added Causton. “But it is well-known in the industry. All of our customers take advantage of it. We’ve known about this for years.”

And now you do too. You may not be able to ever drive on it. But at least now you know it’s there.

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