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Urban tunnels by Musk's Boring Co. draw industry skepticism

Tunnel engineering experts are skeptical that the Boring Co.’s plans work as imagined.
A Tesla car enters a tunnel during a media preview of the Las Vegas Convention Center Loop on April 9, 2021.
A Tesla car enters a tunnel during a media preview of the Las Vegas Convention Center Loop on April 9.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Even by Las Vegas standards, the 1.7-mile tunnel opening on Tuesday to transport visitors through the city's Convention Center is creating a spectacle — especially among elected officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In recent months, three separate groups of elected officials and business leaders from Fort Lauderdale traveled to Las Vegas to study this tunnel loop in which human-driven Tesla cars ferry passengers between three stations.

They also have twice hosted officials from Elon Musk’s Boring Co., which built the Vegas tunnel, to tour Fort Lauderdale and discuss building what Mayor Dean Trantalis hopes will be a nearly three-mile tunnel under the city for $30 million. With hopes to open by the end of 2022, Vice Mayor Heather Moraitis wrote to Gov. Ron DeSantis seeking state money for the project so that the city could ideally expand beyond a single tunnel to the beach.

“We’re very, very close to a deal,” said Trantalis, noting that other companies will be invited to bid and compete against the Boring Co.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis speaks on July 18, 2019.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis. Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP file

But if recent history is any guide, a successful outcome is far from guaranteed. Fort Lauderdale, along with other South Florida cities and counties, including Miami, may be looking to the Boring Co.’s new tunnel in Las Vegas as the solution to their transportation problems at an apparent fraction of the historic cost of tunnels. The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, east of Los Angeles, also recently approved formal negotiations to build a tunnel with the Boring Co. that would connect the Ontario International Airport with a Metrolink station nearly four miles away.

But the tunnel projects that the Boring Co. — Musk also owns Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink — proposed to build in Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore seem to have never meaningfully started. When comparing earlier and current versions of the Boring Co. website, the site no longer mentions the projects in those three cities. Transportation officials from those three cities declined to answer when asked if they had any advice to offer Fort Lauderdale leaders about what may lie ahead.

A growing number of civil engineering experts and tunneling industry veterans also question the premise of Musk’s bet on the future of tunnels in America: that he can bore them considerably faster and more cheaply than ever before. A recent editor’s note in Tunnelling Journal, an industry publication, dismissed Musk’s Vegas tunnels as a mere “vanity project.” In February, Martin Herrenknecht, the CEO of Herrenknecht, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of tunnel boring machines, dismissed Musk as being “full of hot air" in an interview with a German business magazine.

Jian Zhao, a professor of civil engineering and a tunnel boring expert at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said that he didn't see how the Boring Co., given their current approach, would be "able to do things as they promised. I don’t see any new technology being mentioned.”

A tunnel boring machine during a media tour at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Nov. 15, 2019.
A tunnel boring machine at the Las Vegas Convention Center in 2019.John Locher / AP file

The Boring Co., Musk and Musk’s assistant, Omead Afshar, did not respond to requests for comment. But in public testimony on Dec. 16, 2020, before the Las Vegas City Council, Boring CEO Steve Davis touted his company’s plans to expand beyond the existing tunnel under the Convention Center. He called the proposed expansion of the Las Vegas Loop a “safe, reliable and extremely affordable public transportation,” adding that “zero public dollars will be going into this system." Davis also told the City Council members that expanding from Las Vegas and beyond, into Clark County, was critical for the company.

“Our goal is to expand as much as we possibly can," he said.

Tunnel vision

The Boring Co., like many of Musk’s ideas, was seemingly created on a whim.

In December 2016, Musk famously tweeted: “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging … ” Within six months, the Boring Co. was born and began digging within the SpaceX parking lot in Hawthorne, California.

Nearly two years to the day, a tunnel just over a mile was completed: This was the company’s first tunnel, completed at a cost, it says, of under $10 million.

Elon Musk Unveils Boring Co. Los Angeles Test Tunnel
Elon Musk at an unveiling event for the Boring Co.'s test tunnel in Hawthorne, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2018.Robyn Beck / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

“Currently, tunnels are really expensive to dig, with many projects costing between $100 million and $1 billion per mile,” Boring says on its website. “In order to make vast tunnel networks feasible, tunneling costs must be reduced by a factor of more than 10, with Boring Co. Loop tunnels currently priced at approximately $10 million per mile.”

By comparison, a current project underway designed to expand the Los Angeles Metro system by 9 miles costs over $9 billion. But that project features full-capacity trains that can carry hundreds of Angelenos at a time, rather than a maximum of four adult passengers in a single Tesla.

Critically, a short test tunnel the Boring Co. built just outside the Los Angeles International Airportwas built entirely on private land and largely did not require any permits, environmental studies, legal challenges or any other bureaucratic hurdles to make it happen.

Beach dreams

Fort Lauderdale officials have been especially interested in how the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the government entity that owns and operates the Las Vegas Convention Center complex, paid for the $52.5 million tunnel. In that case, the authority paid $47 million to the Boring Co. and $5.5 million to third party inspectors. But they plan to make the cars free to conference attendees.

Trantalis estimates that, for approximately $30 million, the Boring Co. could build a tunnel that would run from downtown Fort Lauderdale to just below the entrance to the beach. But it’s not yet clear who would foot the bill — taxpayers, the state government or the Boring Co. itself. One possibility is that Musk’s firm may be able to cover the construction costs, then collect fares as a way to recoup its expenses. This model is similar to what has previously been proposed in other major cities across the country. But those projects are nowhere close to getting off the drawing board.

“There would be a fee, five or six bucks to take the route, and considering we charge $4 per hour to park on the beach, it’s definitely much better to take something like this,” Trantalis said.

Eventually, he expects these human-driven cars to be replaced with autonomous cars or another larger capacity vehicle, and one day, by a Hyperloop. This theoretical higher-speed type of train was dreamed up by Musk himself nearly a decade ago, where pods would move through a sealed vacuum. But such a viable system is still a ways off in a real-world setting, if it ever comes to fruition.

Still, Moraitis, the Fort Lauderdale vice mayor, is convinced that higher-capacity vehicles are next.

“If they can build the tunnel, they can certainly build the right kind of car to move people,” she said. “If they can build SpaceX and those rockets, they can certainly build a longer Tesla!”

Elon Musk's The Boring Company Unveils Test Tunnel In California
Tunnel boring equipment before an unveiling event for the Hawthorne test tunnel in 2018.Robyn Beck / Pool via Getty Images

Broken promises

But since Boring’s test tunnel near Los Angeles International Airport came online there has been a flurry of headlines about proposed high-profile Boring Co. projects across America being halted.

That included a plan to build a 2.5-mile tunnel alongside the 405 freeway in the western edge of Los Angeles in 2017. But local residents quickly sued on the grounds that the project would be improperly exempted from environmental review. After the Brentwood Residents Coalition and the Boring Co. settled in November 2018, the project never went anywhere.

The day after the deal to end that lawsuit, the Boring Co. proposed a similar project called “the Dugout Loop” to bring Los Angeles Dodgers fans from a few miles west of Dodger Stadium to the ballpark. In August 2018, Dodgers CFO Tucker Kain told CNBC that he expected the project to be ready within two years. But that project, like the other one across town, has not advanced. Both L.A. projects have been removed from the Boring Co. website.

Los Angeles Dodgers spokeswoman Shannon Murphy referred further questions to the Boring Co.

In Chicago, in June 2018, the Boring Co. went a step further, creating computerized renderings imagining what such an automated transportation system might look like ferrying passengers to and from O’Hare International Airport. But nearly three years and one new mayoral administration later, the Chicago O’Hare Express never materialized.

“The plan you are asking about has been dropped,” emailed Michael Claffey, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

The most ambitious project proposed to date was the “Washington, D.C., to Baltimore Loop Project,” a 35-mile tunnel, funded entirely by the Boring Co., to use high-speed electric vehicles to move passengers underground. The company even published a 500-page environmental assessment in April 2019. But two years later, the project is also gone from the Boring Co.’s website.

“I think there was an expectation from Tesla that ‘we will start digging a hole and when something gets in our way we’ll deal with it and we’ll keep digging,’" said Pete Rahn, the former secretary of transportation for Maryland. “That’s just not how the system works in the public environment.”

While Rahn said he was interested in the potential transformative power of high-speed underground tunnels, he found that the project needed so many studies and approvals from federal, state and county agencies that it ultimately died.

“I’m disappointed that the project hasn’t made much progress in Maryland, and I can’t say that it should have been unexpected. But I thought there was a lot of promise there,” he added. “It seemed like they had an approach that would cut through the bureaucracy. But it didn’t happen.”

Florida hopefuls

Still, some Fort Lauderdale officials remain optimistic that they can succeed in building a tunnel network where other American cities have failed. They expect the Boring Co. to formally submit its unsolicited proposal this summer. Trantalis, the mayor, said that building a “12-foot, Tesla-driven type of tunnel” — considerably smaller than a conventional rail tunnel — means that such a project would be far less than most infrastructure projects at just “$10 to $15 million per mile.”

After all, local politicians say, the city already successfully oversaw the demolition of an old professional soccer stadium and the design and construction of a new one in under a year. They point to that stadium as evidence that the city can move infrastructure projects along quickly.

“We are an organization that can and will eliminate the red tape that has historically existed in government,” said Chris Lagerbloom, the city manager of Fort Lauderdale.