The Boring Company: What Cities Really Think of Elon Musk's Tunnel Vision
Elon Musk is getting dug into the nitty-gritty of city politics. The Boring Company, a venture the entrepreneur started two years ago, has been aiming to convince local legislators that the answers to their traffic woes is building lots of tunnels.
Musk’s pitch, outlined at an event in Hawthorne, California in December 2018, is simple. The company plans to dig tunnels 14 feet wide, half the diameter of similar car tunnels, to support autonomous electric cars moving at speeds of up to 150 mph. The initial 1.14-mile test tunnel cost $10 million to make thanks to cost savings, and the firm is hopeful it can reduce the $1 billion per mile associated with similar projects. There will be cars available for pedestrians and cyclists to call up, and Musk claims a city can build enough tunnels to theoretically transport everyone and thus solve the induced demand issue.
The response has been mixed. While Chicago was an early backer of the idea, interest in the project has since cooled. Las Vegas has shown strong enthusiasm, San Jose says it’s exploring options, and a politician in Sydney has also shown interest. Others like New York are more skeptical, while the state of Virginia is rather more hostile to the pitch according to a report from last week.
The state has been exploring investments in transit, including a $1.3 billion expansion of the Long Bridge from Arlington to Washington, D.C. The project would take five years to improve the half-mile crossing across the bridge.
It’s a high price for a short crossing, especially considering how Musk’s tunnel cost around $10 million per mile. Budget-conscious Virginia has shown interest in using resources in a smarter way.
“Virginia DOT [department of transportation] seems very serious about congestion management,” James Moore, director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California, tells Inverse. “The I-66 Express lanes inside and outside the Washington D.C. beltway are unique. They are a conversion of general purpose lanes to priced lanes, and a complete replacement of general purpose lanes with priced lanes at peak hours inside the beltway.”
What did Virginia transit officials make of The Boring Company, which also promises big savings, during their visit to the California headquarters earlier this year? They weren’t impressed.
“It’s a car in a very small tunnel,” Michael McLaughlin, Virginia head of rail transport, told the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s public transit subcommittee in remarks reported by Virgnia Mercury. “If one day we decide it’s feasible, we’ll obviously come back to you.”
Others were more scathing. Board member Scott Kasprowicz, who also attended the trip, said that “I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t have a serious plan in mind, but I don’t consider the steps they’ve taken to date to be substantive. They’ve purchased a used boring machine. They’ve put a bore in the neighborhood where they developed the SpaceX product, and they’ve taken a Model 3 and put guidewheels on it and they’re running it through the tunnel at 60 miles per hour. None of that, I think, is really significant from a standpoint of moving this process forward.”
On the list of authorities likely to adopt The Boring Company’s proposals, it seems Virginia ranks pretty low.
“Their approach appears to be ‘spend to manage what you have, if add capacity make it conventional capacity, and then manage it,’” Moore says. “This may be why Mr. McLaughlin was so singularly unimpressed with the prospect of adding more capacity via tunnels.”
Musk stood with mayor Rahm Emanuel at a June 2018 press conference to connect O’Hare Airport to Block 37 downtown around 17 miles away, a project expected to cost under $1 billion.
The project, dubbed the “X” line, now seems less certain than before. Officials are pushing to get the tunnel secured before Emanuel leaves office in May, but tests with the technology left legislators with mixed feelings.
“It wasn’t as smooth as I thought it would be,” Chicago alderman Gilbert Villegas told The Verge in February. “It certainly felt too experimental for someone to invest a billion dollars in.”
It’s a mixed bag, but there’s a chance the tunnel could still come to Chicago.
3. Las Vegas
The city could win the accolade as the first to build a public Boring Company system. The idea, announced on March 6 and approved on March 12, will transport passengers across the Las Vegas convention center that hosts the CES annual tech show. When the center’s expansion is complete, it will be more than double its prior size and cover 200 acres.
“The selection of The Boring Company for the Las Vegas Convention Center’s on-property, guest transportation solution leads the way to the evolution of transportation overall in Southern Nevada,” LVCVA president and CEO, Steve Hill, said in a statement. “Our destination thrives on innovation and reinvention and The Boring Company’s concept allows us to continue providing the world-class experience our guests and clients have come to expect and move people in an efficient and cost-effective manner with advanced technology.”
The system is expected to start accepting passengers in just one year’s time. It could even offer future expansion, like in this map shared by the center’s authorities:
4. San Jose
Musk’s company has held discussions with San Jose, at the heart of Silicon Valley, about running a link from Mineta San Jose International Airport to Diridon Station around three miles away. Mayor San Liccardo said the city was “exploring…the technology,” describing traditional rail links as “not that cost effective.”
With Liccardo estimating that a comparable rail link would cost around $800 million, it’s perhaps little wonder San Jose is exploring other options.
5. New York
Count New York out of the running for Musk’s tunnels. It emerged last month that plans to build a connection spanning 16 miles from Times Square to John F. Kennedy International Airport hit three key speed bumps before the project was ultimately abandoned:
- It conflicts with existing infrastructure in a way that appeared hard to resolve.
- Discussions around emergency response units went unresolved, with no clear indication of how the police and fire department could access the tunnels.
- Ventilation issues.
That doesn’t mean the city has no interest in Musk’s plans, as state governor Cuomo reached out to Musk in January to try and sort out the subways:
6. Los Angeles
The Dugout Loop, announced in August 2018, is a 3.6-mile tunnel from the city’s baseball stadium to the nearby metro. The project will be financed by the company, with the goal of opening in time for the 2020 baseball season. The team, and the mayor, has expressed warm support for the project.
“This is a key part of what it’s going to take for the Dodgers to continue delivering the fan experience we’re hoping to for our fans” the team’s chief financial officer Tucker Kain told CNBC at the time of the announcement. “It is really important for us to make sure we alleviate some of the friction in the fan experience — traffic in LA being one of those — and really giving people alternative options and doing this all in a clean way.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti was also supportive. At the time of the tunnel’s announcement, he wrote on Twitter that it’s “always exciting to see innovative ideas like the proposed Dugout Loop to Dodgers Stadium that could help ease congestion on our roads and make our most iconic destinations more accessible to everyone.”
The company could come to Australia’s biggest city. Musk told Jeremy Buckingham, a member of the New South Wales parliament’s upper house, that he could solve the city’s traffic woes with a 31-mile tunnel costing around $15 million per kilometer for a bi-directional high-speed tunnel. That equates to $750 million for the whole route, with tunnels to enter and exit priced at $50 million each.
In October 2017, the company received a conditional permit to build a portion of a route between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The project is aimed at a 35-mile tunnel between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
“Incredibly excited to announce our administration’s support for The Boring Company to bring rapid electric transportation technology to Maryland, connecting Baltimore City and Washington D.C.,” Maryland governor Larry Hogan wrote on Facebook at the time of the launch.
The initial D.C. pit has been constructed, while the tunnel is in the environmental review and permitting stage. It’s perhaps the most ambitious project on the firm’s agenda, and its construction would be a major milestone for Musk’s vision of future transport.