The Boring Company sure sounds sexy. It’s founded and funded by Elon Musk, the guy who makes electric cars (Tesla) and sends rockets into space (SpaceX). It has come up with a new—albeit unproven—concept for dismantling traffic. It wants to build underground creations that you, mere human, can ride at speeds up to to 150 mph, without ever encountering a speck of traffic. But before it sinks its machines into the ground and tunnels to victory, the Boring Company has to do something truly monumental: get past local government.
On Monday evening, Boring Company operations chief Jehn Balajadia stood before the city council of LA County’s Culver City, and spent 45 minutes explaining why Musk wants and deserves the right to dig a tunnel under their homes. The sometimes chippy meeting was packed with members of the public, and highlighted both the exciting and not quite consistent elements of the transportation company’s plans.
Balajadia said the Boring Company is done with its tech development phase, and is ready to carve out a “proof of process” tunnel that would run 6.5 miles between the city of Los Angeles and Culver City, its neighbor to the west. Part of the goal here is to test the company’s ability to build across jurisdictions and handle all the hurdles that entails. She said the company has already asked LA for an excavation permit, and is working with Caltrans, the state transportation agency, to secure the right of way beneath public roads. But the local leadership isn’t entirely convinced.
Musk came up with the Boring Company in late 2016 while stuck in LA traffic. He could destroy the scourge of congestion, he figured, by building layers upon layers of underground tunnels, each just wide enough for a personal car or a multi-passenger pod. Those vehicles would ride on electric skates that would zoom everyone along at triple-digit speeds. And, he insisted, he could do it far more cheaply and at least four times faster than typical tunneling tech—a claim he hasn’t proven, and which tunneling engineers doubt. Longer tunnels between cities, Musk added, could contain the hyperloop, his idea for a levitating train that works in a near-vacuum tube.
By early last year, Musk had purchased a used tunnel boring machine and began building a test trench under SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, in LA County. By August, the Boring Company had secured the city of Hawthorne’s permission to build a 2-mile test tunnel beneath the city streets. Now, it plans to bid for a Chicago project to build high-speed rail between downtown and O’Hare International Airport, and says it’s in talks to construct a hyperloop between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland, which will eventually stretch to New York.
This latest interaction with local government comes a month after Musk faced intense Twitter backlash for his comments about the unpleasantries of riding public transit. And the Culver City presentation seemed pitched to ameliorate potential concerns. Balajadia focused on the “Loop,” the small pods meant to transport multiple passengers, rather than the individual Teslas highlighted in the Boring Company’s first promotional video. She said the Boring Company’s system would complement the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s expanding public transportation network, and that it would not ask for any taxpayer funding. And she said the cost of a ride in a Boring Company pod would be “comparable, if not lower, than than any existing public transportation.” (An LA Metro bus ride costs $1.75.)
The five City Council members met the presentation with mixed reactions. Meghan Sahli-Wells said she was worried the private transportation company would compete with public transit systems, which are charged with providing equitable transportation options for entire city. “I don’t really trust a private company to watch out for equity because I haven’t seen it happen,” she said. “It looks super sexy and super easy but it’s half-baked from a public perspective.”
Others like the idea of bringing some Musk magic to the city, home to 40,000 residents and famous for its movie and television studios. “I think there’s still so much to vet out and so much technology that’s going to move forward, but we’re a very forward thinking city,” said Mayor Jeffrey Cooper. “I think it would be foolhardy of us to just say no.” He said he hoped the company would bring a more solid proposal before the city council in the future.
Balajadia also revealed a few more new details about the Boring Company’s hard to nail down technical plans. Though the tunnel system will have many entrances and exits, any given pod will take all its riders to a single destination, rather than pausing at each stop, like a subway. In a document it submitted to the Culver City Council, the Boring Company writes, “The electric skates are faster than conventional subway cars, and are autonomous vehicles. Most importantly, Loop is an ‘express’ public transit system… Therefore, unlike trains, the skate’s average speed is very close to its maximum speed.”
Tunneling experts have been extremely skeptical about the Boring Company’s plans. They point out that the actual digging is the least of a tunneling firm’s problems—it has to construct supports behind it as it goes, haul soil to the surface, and monitor for construction damage, and keep track of where delicate utility lines are buried. (The Boring Company says it is investigating using soil to build bricks to support the tunnel walls instead of bringing it to the surface and dumping it elsewhere.) And then there’s the really time intensive stuff: permitting, filing reports, and hiring contractors. And all those city council meetings.
That’s work for places like Culver City, too. This project “would require significant staff investment,” said City Manager John Nachbar, noting the city would likely have to hire consultants to guide it through the process. “This would be, for us, a rather monumental effort.”
Well, Balajadia said, the Boring Company would be open to paying for those consultants, too.
Can You Dig It?