Virginia transit officials drove through Elon Musk’s tunnel. They say they’ll stick with railways and roads

By: - March 21, 2019 4:30 am

Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks at an unveiling event for The Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel December 18, 2018, in Hawthorne, Calif. The tunnel is a preview of Musk’s larger vision to ease traffic in Los Angeles. (Photo by Robyn Beck-Pool/Getty Images)

Virginia transit officials flew out to California earlier this year to check out a tunnel dug by Elon Musk’s Boring Company and, well, they think the state should stick with traditional railways and roads for now.

“It’s a car in a very small tunnel,” Michael McLaughlin, Virginia’s chief of rail transportation, told members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s public transit subcommittee on Wednesday.

“If one day we decide it’s feasible, we’ll obviously come back to you.”

The board has been discussing high-dollar investments in the state’s rail infrastructure, including a $1.3 billion bridge between Virginia and Washington. But board members say those conversations have been clouded by questions about whether such upgrades might be rendered obsolete before they’re even completed if Musk’s much-hyped tunneling and hyperloop technology advances beyond its current experimental stage.

Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX with a mixed record for delivering on crazy-sounding ideas, announced the Boring Company in a series of tweets while he was stuck in traffic.

Transit planners have been skeptical, but at the same time Musk has announced a partnership with the city of Chicago and a plan to link D.C. and Baltimore with his tunneling technology, which promises “autonomous electric skates traveling at 125-150 miles per hour.”

At this stage, all Musk has to show for his work is a Tesla Model 3 running on guard rails through a bumpy, 1.14-mile long demonstration tunnel under an industrial park in Hawthorne, California. (Musk said employees ran out of time to smooth the road bed, and the Los Angeles Times reports it was “so uneven in places that it felt like riding on a dirt road.”)

Tunneling isn’t a new technology. The innovation Musk hopes to bring to it is a drastic reduction in costs. And on that front, he claims he’s been successful, saying the project cost about $10 million. That’s significantly less than the $170 million to $920 million per mile cost of recent subway projects around the country, according to CityLab, which notes Musk’s figure doesn’t include research, development, equipment and, possibly, labor.

The officials from Virginia who met with company leaders and took a drive through the tunnel in January say nothing they saw would lead them to change their approach to transit in the near term.

“I think there’s a lot of show going on here,” said Scott Kasprowicz, a Commonwealth Transportation Board member who made the trip with McLaughlin and public transit chief Jennifer Mitchell.

“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.”

Kasprowicz said he understands the company gained information in their first phase that will guide future projects, but he said he still views the work as decades away from delivering usable, meaningful new transit options.

From his perspective, that will change when either the Boring Company or the hyperloop technology it might one day carry begin to attract significant outside investment needed to move major infrastructure projects forward.

At this point, Kasprowicz noted, Musk is the only major investor in the Boring Company.

None of this is to say the project might not one day hold promise. He said that aside from cost, environmental impacts are the greatest impediments to major transit projects. Moving them underground would virtually eliminate those land use concerns.

“The reality is it’s a great idea, but I’m not sure its time has come,” he said.

McLaughlin, the state’s head of rail, seemed to concur. After outlining all the issues he saw with the project, he noted the company was aware of the hurdles and working to solve them.

“We’ll give Elon Musk and the Boring Company credit for at least trying.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.