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Why experts are so skeptical of Elon Musk’s LA tunnels

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“I don’t know how you would actually pull that off very easily”

Screenshot via The Boring Company

Elon Musk has made no secret that he wants to solve Los Angeles’ traffic woes with underground tunnels, where cars could bolt below the city at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. The billionaire entrepreneur says his project, dubbed Loop, would be a “significant public benefit” that unsnarls traffic.

He claims he can finish burrowing a 17-mile tunnel between Sherman Oaks and LAX by the end of 2018.

It’s also no secret that Musk’s accomplishments fall short of his big aspirations. In November, Rolling Stone described him as having “managed to sell the world on his capability to achieve objectives so lofty that from the mouth of anyone else, they'd be called fantasies,” without ever having to back them up.

Building tunnels beneath Los Angeles is not likely to be an exception.

The Boring Company, Musk’s tunneling company, is already at work building a test track beneath a two-mile stretch of 120th Street in Hawthorne, and it has applied for permits from the city of Los Angeles to do more tunneling. But large infrastructure projects require much, much more than building permits.

State law demands that they be heavily scrutinized. There’s rigorous environmental analysis, public hearings and outreach, and government reviews before they can even break ground. The Expo Line we know today, for example, was first studied by Metro in 2000.

Three construction and transportation experts we interviewed said, more or less, that Musk’s talk of building a tunnel by the end of next year is just that—talk.

Reached by Curbed, a spokesperson for Boring Company dismissed the criticism, and alluded to the fact that Musk has previously broken into two industries—with Tesla and SpaceX—experts once said it would be challenging to thrive in.

“It’s important to frame The Boring Company in this context,” wrote spokesperson Sam Teller. “Elon has built successful companies in two of the most technologically complex and highly regulated industries on earth. Thorny regulatory frameworks are a fact of life, not an insurmountable obstacle.”

That said, here are five reasons experts said Angelenos should all be skeptical of Musk and his claims:

1. Environmental analysis alone would take years

Big construction projects, like Musk’s tunnel, are strictly regulated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). It requires a fastidious environmental impact review (EIR) designed to rigorously evaluate any and all potential impacts a project could have. Along with an exhaustive analysis of a project’s effect on its local environment, the EIR process generally requires extensive public outreach.

“Technology doesn’t take precedence over the environmental process,” says Joshua Schank, the leader of Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation. “You can have the fastest tunneling machines and the greatest mode of transport, but none of that affects the political or environmental process.”

Musk tunnel map updated
This map shows where Elon Musk wants to tunnel in Los Angeles.
Courtesy the Boring Company

Juan Matute, the associate director of UCLA Lewis Center and the Institute of Transportation Studies, where he also teaches a CEQA course, agrees.

“CEQA review is a very long process. It can vary project to project, but given how new this is, that it’s a novel technology with, maybe, novel construction methods, there isn’t precedent,” Matute says. “If it’s truly something new, you actually don’t have to just produce the paper, you have to do the full analysis. So, it would go through the community process.”

He estimates the EIR would take at least three to four years—even longer if someone sued. Metro’s Schank points out that the point of the entire environmental analysis is to make sure the public has ample opportunity to raise objections or concerns about a proposed project.

“California requires a substantial amount of community outreach and due process before a project can begin,” says Schank. “We live in a democracy, and we’ve decided that no single entity can simply start construction without a rigorous examination.”

2. There are lots of risks where Musk wants to tunnel

Matute says there are plenty of other state laws that govern where construction or tunneling can and cannot take place. For example, risks like old oil wells and earthquake faults, both common in subterranean west Los Angeles, come with their own construction rules.

The Boring Company tunnel under LA

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

“Elon has released only about 0.1 percent of the details needed to evaluate the merits or environmental impacts of the proposal,” says Matute. “There are profound generalized impacts and countless specific hazards, like oil wells, that will mire bored tunnels in years of environmental review.”

The point of these rules, perhaps obviously, is to minimize risk during construction and operation. Reasons to not tunnel through earthquake faults are obvious. Oil wells carry the risk of methane fueled explosions, like the one that blew out a Ross Dress For Less store in 1985.

These types of risks dictate the exact route Musk’s hypothetical tunnel could eventually take under Los Angeles. Only after an exact route is determined could Musk move onto the next stage of the construction process.

3. Musk needs permission from property owners to drill beneath their land

Should his project make it through the environmental review process, Musk would also need permission from property owners—both public and private—to dig below their land. This process is called easement, and it can be extraordinarily challenging. For example, Beverly Hills’ refusal to grant Metro easement for its Westside subway extension tied up the project for nearly two decades.

“The best way to do this would be to negotiate with the state of California and build it under the freeway system,” Matute says. “But those roads are built for 65 mph, not more than 100, and you’re going to need to take wider turns. Inevitably it’ll go under private property, and all it takes one person’s refusal before you have to re-engineer everything.”

Experts say if Musk were to try and build alone, it would be virtually impossible for him to get the necessary easements. Public agencies such as Metro are empowered by law to use eminent domain to use private property for public purposes, but there’s no equivalent a private business.

“The biggest question for me with a project like this is if you have the right to in order to pass underneath all these private properties,” says David Schmidt, COO of Skanska USA, part of the construction company that’s building Metro’s Regional Connector and the Westside Subway (it also built the Expo Line). “It takes an enormous amount of effort on the part of a public agency when they want to do a tunneling project. As a private company, I don’t know how you would actually pull that off very easily. So much would have to be granted from the city, it would have to be a public private partnership.”

Across the road and below the ground

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Similarly, UCLA’s Matute says existing legal barriers might be so great, that Musk might have better luck lobbying the state legislature to exempt the project.

“If I were Elon Musk, and I had a lot of money and not a lot of patience, I would look to the state legislature to exempt the project,” says Matute. “And that is a lobbying process. Whether or not that’s politically viable at this moment, and whether or not it could still be challenged, can be an open question.”

Incidentally, in October, the Boring Company hired Capitol Strategies Group to lobby in Sacramento.

4. Tunnels would probably cause more traffic

Ironically, the experts we spoke with seem to think that Musk’s project might actually end up making more traffic. The problem boils down to the fact that there would be limited surface space for people to enter the tunnel, which would likely mean users would have to queue up.

“The demand for public transit on the Sepulveda corridor is huge,” says Metro’s Schank. “The 405 is jammed all day every day, and putting a few people into a pod isn’t going to make much of a difference. The congestion at the entry points and exit points would be enormous. You can’t improve the capacity in the corridor without addressing how people get to the corridor itself.”

Matute pointed out the same issue. “If it’s a four minute trip from Brentwood to Hawthorne, but there’s a 20 minute line to get into the tube, you haven’t really done much,” he says.

5. Who will benefit?

There’s the question of how much it would cost to use. Musk has repeated multiple times that he would build and operate Loop without any public money. This means that if the system were ever to become operational, it would likely employ a toll-style fare system for use. Federal law requires that large transportation projects be accessible to people of all different income levels.

“When you’re building a major transportation project, you can’t just build it for a privileged class of users. Access has to be provided for everyone,” Schank says. “Federal law says you can’t build a new transportation system that would going to disproportionately benefit the wealthy.”

The question then becomes how much would it cost to use, and whether or not an equitable system would be financially viable.

“Technically, I don’t think it’s that hard. But, for me, I think, ‘Why would you run cars in it? Why wouldn’t you run fixed rail?’” said Schmidt. “I don’t know for a fact, but it seems to me you can certainly have more people riding on a train than in cars on sleds. You’d want to really look at what kind of volume you can move through the tunnel to make the call about how viable a project like this would be.”

But Musk doesn’t like the public transit. He called it a “pain in the ass” in an interview with Wired this month.

“That’s why everyone doesn’t like it,” Musk said. ”And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”