Monday, June 18, 2018
Chicago taps Elon Musk’s Boring Company to build high-speed transit tunnels that would tie Loop with O'Hare
This video offers a conceptual look at The Boring Company’s loop technology, which would transport up to 16 passengers at a time on self-driving electric vehicles called "skates," built on a Tesla chassis.
Bill Ruthhart and John ByrneContact ReportersChicago Tribune
Autonomous 16-passenger vehicles would zip back and forth at speeds exceeding 100 mph in tunnels between the Loop and O’Hare International Airport under a high-speed transit proposal being negotiated between Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall and billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s The Boring Co., city and company officials have confirmed.
Emanuel’s administration has selected Musk’s company from four competing bids to provide high-speed transportation between downtown and the airport. Negotiations between the two parties will ensue in hopes of reaching a final deal to provide a long-sought-after alternative to Chicago’s traffic gridlock and slower “L” trains.
In choosing Boring, Emanuel and senior City Hall officials are counting on Musk’s highly touted but still unproven tunneling technology over the more traditional high-speed rail option that until recently had been envisioned as the answer to speeding up the commute between the city’s central business district and one of the world’s busiest airports.
Emanuel and Boring officials said it’s too early to provide a timeline for the project’s completion or its estimated cost, but they said Boring would pay for the entire project. That would include the construction of a new station at O’Hare and the completion of the mothballed superstation built at Block 37 under previous Mayor Richard M. Daley, who like Emanuel pushed for high-speed rail access to O’Hare.
Musk and Emanuel are expected to formally announce the proposal Thursday afternoon at that long-dormant underground station.
Under the proposal, passengers would be able to travel from the Loop to O’Hare in just 12 minutes at an estimated cost of $20 to $25 per ride. A final route for the high-speed tunnels is still subject to negotiations, and a Boring official and Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin declined to identify where it might run.
Boring’s preferred preliminary route, however, would follow Randolph Street west from Block 37 and then run under the Kennedy Expressway northwest before tracking north under Halsted Street and northwest under Milwaukee Avenue. The tunnels then would run northwest under Elston Avenue near Goose Island before later again crossing under the Kennedy Expressway and heading west to O’Hare, according to a source familiar with the plans who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The transit system’s O’Hare station is planned near the new global terminal Emanuel has announced as part of an $8.5 billion overhaul of the airport, the source said.
READ MORE: Here's a look at the details of Emanuel's $8.5 billion plan to dramatically expand O'Hare »
All told, Boring has estimated the project will cost less than $1 billion, according to a source familiar with the company’s proposal but not authorized to speak publicly because of ongoing negotiations.
In exchange for paying to build the new transit system, Boring would keep the revenue from the system’s transit fees and any money generated by advertisements, branding and in-vehicle sales, Rivkin and the company said. Ownership of the twin tunnels has not been determined, but the Emanuel administration plans to seek a long-term lease to Musk’s company, a source familiar with the proposal said.
Myriad regulatory, safety and environmental questions also could affect the project’s construction and timeline, Boring and city officials acknowledged.
For now, though, Emanuel is selling the idea as the latest bold “transformative” innovation in a city that found itself at the forefront of American railroads and became an early linchpin in the nation’s aviation system.
“If you look at the history of Chicago … every time we’ve been an innovator in transportation, we have seized the future,” Emanuel said in an interview with the Tribune on Wednesday. “I think figuring out — when time is money — how to shrink the distance between the economic and job engines of O’Hare and downtown positions Chicago as the global leader and global city in the United States.”
Beyond the big-picture rhetoric, however, plenty of questions remain.
In California and Maryland, Boring has run into regulatory hurdles and concerns from elected officials about its unproven technology.
Musk’s company is still digging its first test tunnel in Hawthorne, Calif., and the passenger vehicles, which the company refers to as “skates,” have yet to be thoroughly tested for public use.
The economic feasibility of Boring’s project relies on Musk’s confidence that it can build tunnels at least 14 times faster than previous efforts, which a company official acknowledged the company must still prove.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, and Elon Musk appear together in Block 37 to announce that Musk's Boring Company has been selected to build an underground high-speed transportation system between downtown Chicago and O'Hare International Airport, June 14, 2018, in Chicago. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
And while the concept of a self-driving tram or vehicle is not new, the particular model Boring envisions — based on a modified Tesla Model X car chassis — still has to be built on a large scale.
Emanuel remained undeterred by the uncertainty, pointing in large part to Musk’s success in building electric-car powerhouse Tesla and aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, among other accomplishments.
“We’re taking a bet on a guy who doesn’t like to fail — and his resources. There are a bunch of Teslas on the road. He put SpaceX together. He’s proven something,” Emanuel said of Musk. “The risk — with no financial risk — is I’m betting on a guy who has proven in space, auto and now a tunnel, that he can innovate and create something of the future. Given his track record, we are taking his reputation and saying, ‘This is a guy in two other transportation modes who has not failed.’ That’s what we’re doing.”
A conceptual look at the Chicago Express Loop, which will run between O’Hare International Airport and Block 37 in downtown Chicago. (The Boring Company / The Boring Company)
‘Skates’ with eight wheels
Musk, who Forbes estimates has a net worth of $20 billion, founded Boring in late 2016 to “solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic.”
The entrepreneur’s main solution is a concept called “Hyperloop,” an “ultra high-speed” underground transit system in which passengers ride through a vacuum tunnel system in self-driving electric pods with pressurized cabins at speeds of more than 600 mph.
The concept Musk and Boring envision for Chicago, however, is more basic and simply dubbed “Loop.”
In the Loop system, 16-passenger vehicles would have both vertical and horizontal wheels. Boring officials stress the vehicles are “confined” and will “not be a car on auto drive.”
Those eight “guiding wheels” will run along a nearly 18-mile track. The four vertical wheels would be similar to traditional tires on a car running along a concrete shelf on the ground. Four additional wheels on the sides of the vehicle would likely be made of steel with a polyurethane coating and would help move the vehicle by running along concrete curbs along the tunnel’s walls.
“It is not on any kind of auto steering,” the official said. “It is a mechanical operation where the guide wheels turn the vehicle.”
The “skates,” as Musk and others call them, would be able to reach top speeds of 150 mph in the tunnels’ straight stretches while speeds would be reduced around curves, according to Boring.
READ MORE: Hyperloop promises a 30-minute trip from Chicago to Cleveland, but multiple challenges ahead »
While the tunnel’s northwest route is preliminary and subject to final negotiations and engineering studies, Boring officials said there would be no use of eminent domain to seize land or the rights to any land underground.
Any public right of way Boring will use will be underground and will not necessitate closing any surface roads. Boring would buy or lease any land needed aboveground, the company official said.
The Chicago system is expected to be able to handle nearly 2,000 passengers per direction per hour, with cars leaving every 30 seconds to two minutes, city officials said. How much a ride will cost is subject to final negotiations, but Boring has stated a goal of charging between $20 and $25 — or half the cost of a typical ride-share or cab ride to O’Hare, a source familiar with the talks said.
Key to Boring’s efforts to disrupt the transportation industry is digging tunnels smarter, faster and cheaper.
The Chicago tunnels would be 14 feet in diameter, or about half the size of typical tunnels, and thus, can be dug faster and for less money, Boring officials say.
At a recent question-and-answer session in Los Angeles, Musk also said the company’s boring machines would have three times the power and would run on Tesla batteries without the expense of miles of high voltage cables that other machines use. Musk also said Boring would build the tunnels’ concrete shells as it continues to dig and was working with “first-rate” engineers to find ways to remove dirt faster.
“This is the only way we can think of to address chronic traffic issues in major cities,” Musk said at the event, envisioning a day when hundreds of levels of underground tunnels could be built. “We think it’s the one way that could work and is worth trying.”
At the intersection of State and Randolph Streets, pedestrians cross in front of Block 37 on June 8, 2016. (Brandon Chew / Chicago Tribune)
Daley, Emanuel’s predecessor, often mentioned his ride aboard a magnetic levitation train in Shanghai as a possible model for Chicago, and frequently discussed the possibility of a high-speed rail line to O’Hare.
Daley envisioned the Block 37 shopping center near City Hall sitting atop a station for the high-speed rail. After the CTA and city spent more than $250 million on the Block 37 “superstation,” Daley ordered the work stopped in 2008, saying the technology was outdated and more than $100 million more was still needed for completion.
The high-speed-to-O’Hare dream was dead until Emanuel resuscitated it in a May 2015 interview with the Tribune, shortly after he won his second term. In a February 2017 infrastructure speech, the mayor announced the city had retained Rivkin, a former federal transportation official, to create “an express train” to O’Hare.
Rivkin, a former general counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation, worked as the city’s consultant on the project for six months before Emanuel hired him as deputy mayor. The Emanuel administration did not answer questions Wednesday about how much the city paid Rivkin as a consultant.
As part of his consulting work, Rivkin said he met with train and rail executives around the country, but also made a trip last summer with then-Deputy Mayor Steve Koch to California to visit the budding Boring headquarters. They toured the facility, saw a test vehicle run down a track and met with Musk.
“What Elon Musk and his colleagues have built, beyond Tesla and (Tesla subsidiary) SolarCity and the battery manufacturers is truly remarkable. They have reinvented rocketry, reduced the cost by a considerable margin and done things that nobody has ever done before. You have to be impressed by that,” Rivkin said about his visit. “It’s not just theoretical — they are the main contractor for the space station (with NASA) and doing remarkable things, so you have to take it seriously when they say, ‘We’re getting into disrupting the tunneling business. We can do it cheaper, a lot faster, and we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.’ ”
Boring’s interest became real when Musk tweeted in November that the company would compete for the Chicago project. The Tribune previously reported how emails to Emanuel showed that a May 2017 political power lunch between the mayor and a Chicago private equity investor served as the catalyst for talks between Musk and the city.
READ MORE: Emanuel's emails reveal how a political power lunch served as the catalyst for a possible high-speed O'Hare tunnel »
Valor Equity Partners founder Antonio Gracias, whose Chicago-based firm has invested in Musk’s SpaceX, met with Emanuel in his office 32 stories above Michigan Avenue and a week later contributed the then-maximum $5,600 to the mayor’s campaign. Gracias told the Tribune the contribution was not connected to the lunch and the meeting’s purpose was general and not to discuss Boring.
Gracias, who with his wife has given $72,700 to the mayor’s campaign, told the Tribune then that he’s not an investor in Boring and that his “sole motivation was to help (Emanuel) with ideas to improve Chicago.”
In an email to Emanuel, Gracias said Musk thought a tunnel to O’Hare was “feasible and is interested in discussing the idea. It would be amazing for Chicago if we can get this done.”
Rivkin said the possibility of Boring building the project didn’t become real until it submitted its proposal that did not call for spending taxpayer dollars — including for the construction of the stations. The other finalist for the project was a partnership between Chicago’s Loop Capital, Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s investment company, two European infrastructure companies and New York-based investment firm Antarctica Capital.
City officials declined to describe the other partnership’s proposal, citing the ongoing procurement process. The Emanuel administration also declined to release a copy of Boring’s formal bid, saying it would be released only after a contract with the company is reached, in accordance with city contracting rules.
Rivkin said the city expects to enter into negotiations with Boring immediately, with a company official saying it expects that process to take a month. Whether and how Boring is able to generate revenue from the stations through retail or other methods will be discussed as will how the city will protect itself from any costs should the project not be completed.
In addition, Rivkin said the city will negotiate to ensure it “will share in any significant profits that are made” from Boring’s Chicago system. Rivkin declined to offer a timeline for when the project might get built but said Boring was “very forward-leaning and optimistic about its timeline.”
“I think Elon Musk and Rahm Emanuel share a lot of visionary qualities, and one of the other qualities they share is neither is a patient man,” Rivkin said. “I expect this to move quickly.”
An image from video offers a conceptual look at The Boring Company’s loop technology, which it plans to use for high speed transportation between downtown and O’Hare International Airport. (The Boring Company)
Asked in an interview Wednesday about his relationship with Musk, Emanuel said he has “consciously not talked to him about this project,” citing the city’s ongoing procurement process. But the mayor said he “dealt with him in the past when I was in the White House” and has spoken with Musk at different times but it had been four or five years since they last talked.
Musk contributed the then-maximum $5,300 to Emanuel’s campaign in May 2013 and gave the mayor $50,000 more in March 2015, records show.
His relationship with the mayor aside, Musk’s cutting-edge technology has engendered plenty of questions from other elected officials on the East and West coasts.
Boring has already been digging a tunnel near Los Angeles, starting under a parking lot at Musk’s SpaceX company headquarters. The company has also applied for a permit to dig a 2.7-mile “proof of process” tunnel beneath Los Angeles and Culver City, Calif., to show how the technology would work.
While Los Angeles officials have discussed exempting the project from some environmental impact analysis in order to fast-track it, two Los Angeles community groups filed lawsuits against the city in May arguing to waive that analysis would violate the law.
And the mayor of Culver City sent a letter to Los Angeles officials in April urging them to deny the exemption in part because “the project description is not sufficiently defined.”
READ MORE: Elon Musk says express transit to O'Hare might not involve traditional rail service »
In October, Maryland officials issued Boring a utility permit to dig a tunnel beneath an expressway to transport passengers from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. But Maryland’s attorney general subsequently argued that wasn’t the appropriate permission to grant for the dig.
And in March, five federal lawmakers from Maryland wrote a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, asking what kinds of environmental, engineering and safety reviews the project would face, noting it would “utilize a wholly new technology and could have significant impacts on our constituents.”
Meanwhile, Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor Herbert Einstein, whose research interests include underground construction, told Forbes in an April article that it won’t be easy for Musk to greatly lower the cost of digging tunnels.
“His machines that build tunnels look pretty standard,” Einstein said. “I’ve not seen anything from him that is different from what other people do except for the smaller diameter. … The smaller you go, the more quickly you can build it and the cheaper. That is certainly the case, but I don't know if it's massively lower.”
While Rivkin and Emanuel both expressed confidence in Musk’s technology chops, they also were quick to point out that it is Boring Co. that is taking on the financial risk — not the city.
“We’ve taken a long time studying this. Chicago becomes all that more competitive,” Emanuel said. “We don’t have any financial risk, but we do get all the upside of their investment.”
Sunday, June 17, 2018
THE TORTOISE AND THE DUCKSTHE TORTOISE, you know, carries his house on his back. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot leave home. They say that Jupiter punished him so, because he was such a lazy stay-at-home that he would not go to Jupiter's wedding, even when especially invited.
After many years, Tortoise began to wish he had gone to that wedding. When he saw how gaily the birds flew about and how the Hare and the Chipmunk and all the other animals ran nimbly by, always eager to see everything there was to be seen, the Tortoise felt very sad and discontented. He wanted to see the world too, and there he was with a house on his back and little short legs that could hardly drag him along.
One day he met a pair of Ducks and told them all his trouble.
"We can help you to see the world," said the Ducks. "Take hold of this stick with your teeth and we will carry you far up in the air where you can see the whole countryside. But keep quiet or you will be sorry."
The Tortoise was very glad indeed. He seized the stick firmly with his teeth, the two Ducks took hold of it one at each end, and away they sailed up toward the clouds.
Just then a Crow flew by. He was very much astonished at the strange sight and cried:
"This must surely be the King of Tortoises!"
"Why certainly—" began the Tortoise.
But as he opened his mouth to say these foolish words he lost his hold on the stick, and down he fell to the ground, where he was dashed to pieces on a rock.
Foolish curiosity and vanity often lead to misfortune.
All aboard whatever the heck this thing is! Musks' Chicago Express Loop would transport passengers from downtown to O'Hare in 12 minutes. The Boring Company
The Craziest Thing About Elon Musk's 'Express Loop' Is the Price
LAURA BLISS 9:42 AM ET
The $1 billion construction estimate is a fraction of what subterranean transit projects cost.
The Boring Company, the tunneling venture Tesla CEO Elon Musk started in 2016 out of his personal frustration with surface-level gridlock, has made a significant step towards evolving beyond billionaire-passion project: The company has been selected to build and operate an 18-mile, 12-minute rapid transit connection between Chicago’s downtown Loop and O’Hare International Airport, according to news reports.
The project would be the first demonstration of Musk’s futuristic quasi-transit technology: autonomous 16-passenger vehicles that transport passengers on what the company calls “skates”—moving, multi-directional platforms that lower passengers from the surface underground and to their destinations at speeds of up to 150 mph. Most transit moves horizontally, some moves vertically; the concept for the “Chicago Express Loop” is to do both.
Currently, it takes $5 and 37 minutes to travel from downtown Chicago to O’Hare on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line “L” train—faster than driving. A ticket for top-speed travel on the Express Loop would cost $25, according to the proposal. Most deliciously for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who approved the deal, the Boring Company has agreed to pay upfront costs for the construction of the project, which it estimates will cost less than $1 billion, according to reports.
Whether any city should be encouraging Musk’s anti-transit-”transit” proposals, which by nature favor expensive, low-capacity modes over more utilitarian approaches, is up for the debate. The Musk “Loop” would have a capacity of 2,000 passengers per hour in each direction, which is about 60 percent of the Blue Line’s current, mostly-under-capacity average hourly ridership. Debatable too are the merits of this particular project for airport-bound Chicagoans—the Blue Line works pretty darn well, and airport express lines in other cities, appealing mostly for business travelers, haven’t panned out so well. In Toronto, where the subway system doesn’t reach the international airport, a brand-new airport express line has fallen seriously short of ridership expectations, even with its one-way fare of $12.35.
Plus, none of the Boring Company’s technology is remotely proven. A video released by the company in July 2017 of a “car skate” in action showed a Tesla being lowered underground on what essentially looked like a giant elevator that one might find in an Apple store. They haven’t been tested for public use. And while a 16-person autonomous vehicle isn’t a novel concept, “the particular model Boring envisions—based on a modified Tesla Model X car chassis—still has to be built on a large scale,” Bill Ruthhart and John Byrne of the Chicago Tribune reported.
But at least one aspect of the proposed Loop concept would be incredibly valuable if Musk actually pulled it off, and not just to Chicago. That’s the cost of the tunneling itself. Digging the big hole might be the most mundane element of the project, but it’s probably the most difficult to do affordably. If the Boring Company’s cost projection of $1 billion is anywhere near accurate, that pencils out to $55.5 million per mile—far and away, the cheapest construction cost for any subterranean transit line in the U.S.
Digging tunnels is very, very expensive: Busting through hard rock, excavating and supporting it, managing drills so that they don’t get stuck, installing proper ventilation: All of this is precarious work that takes time and money. Musk has focused the Boring Company on reducing the time element by ramping up the power of boring machines and automating reinforcements. The $1 billion cost projection for Chicago is a number that relies on Musk’s confidence that the Boring Company “can build tunnels at least 14 times faster than previous efforts, which a company official acknowledged the company must still prove,” the Tribune reported.
Shorter construction time would translate into fewer labor costs, one of the main reasons that building subways in the U.S. is ludicrously expensive, especially when compared to other countries. The writer and transportation researcher Alon Levy compiled the grim per-mile pricing of recent tunnel projects for CityLab in January, shown below.(CityLab)
This table gives a sense of how extraordinary Musk’s project would be on a cost basis—and how improbable. Experts have expressed skepticism about whether Musk could make a serious breakthrough in boring technology. “His machines that build tunnels look pretty standard,” Herbert Einstein, a professor of engineering Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Forbes in April. “I’ve not seen anything from him that is different from what other people do except for the smaller diameter. … The smaller you go, the more quickly you can build it and the cheaper. That is certainly the case, but I don’t know if it’s massively lower.”
Plus, it’s not just the time and labor costs that make tunneling pricey. Government regulations take time to navigate, there aren’t that many drilling companies working in the U.S., and contractors can be unreliable. Those aren’t technological fixes, and Musk has already run into his share of regulatory barriers and rightful concerns from the public about his quixotic goals. The company has gained approval and built a two-mile “test tunnel” beneath SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and is still negotiating with city officials in L.A. and Culver City to construct a 6.5-mile test tunnel beneath I-405. It also has preliminary approval to dig out in northeast Washington, D.C. The Chicago deal represents the major validation for the Boring Company, which endeavors to “solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic,” in Musk’s words.
The $1 billion cost projection is probably wildly inaccurate, a figure that reflects Musk’s signature confidence in his own achievements. That confidence is built on some remarkable technology: Musk has brought reusable rocketry, radically improved batteries, and paradigm-shifting electric vehicles to the market. So far, however, it’s not clear whether he can actually make money doing these things.
But regardless of whether Musk’s boutique airport-tube ever sees a paying passenger, any cost reductions to subterranean construction that Musk might develop along the way would be most welcome by, for example, the millions of train riders awaiting a new Hudson River tunnel connection between New Jersey and Penn Station, or the commuters in Los Angeles who’ve dreamt for decades of a second tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass. Frankly, if Elon Musk can tunnel those 18 miles to O’Hare for less than $.5 billion per mile, it would be pretty miraculous.
LAURA BLISS JUL 21, 2017
High-speed vactrains might be the ticket for a Martian colony. As a practical transit investment for Earth, the technology has a long way to go.
Elon Musk’s Boring Company has gained “verbal approval” from extremely unspecified government leaders to build an underground hyperloop between Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City—if you believe the tweets of the mercurial Tesla and SpaceX CEO. “Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly,” Musk tweeted Thursday, after his initial claim triggered a tidal wave of curiosity.
Such a project would blast travelers from New York to D.C. in 29 minutes, according to Musk, through what would amount to the world’s longest tunnel. It’s not clear who gave Musk a thumb’s up, or in what form. But, besides gaining approval from countless local, state, and federal authorities, a bevy of unresolved issues still float around the Jetsons-esque transportation concept. (Refresher: A hyperloop involves firing bullet-shaped pods of humans and/or freight through frictionless, near-vacuum tubes over long distances, at airplane speeds.)
Captive users of current Northeast Corridor transit options may understandably clamor for near-supersonic tube tickets, laws of physics be damned. Slow down: There are barriers yet to be crossed.
1. The technology is still unproven
Hyperloop One, a start-up working to make Musk’s dream a reality, declared its “Kitty Hawk Moment” earlier this year—a full systems test along the company’s 500-meter track in Nevada. For a few seconds, the start-up successfully deployed all the key, friction-eliminating elements of its pneumatic tube technology in one go.
But that Nevada desert test hit speeds of just 70 mph—a fraction of the 700 mph the system promises. The company has pledged to hit its next benchmark of 250 mph later this year; other hyperloop-builders have promised a fully operational system somewhere in the world by 2020. That timeline seems improbable. The basic concept of a hyperloop may pencil out from a technology standpoint. But in terms of safety, cost, and need, huge questions still loom over the project.
2. It might be totally unfit for human beings
“We’re selling time,” Hyperloop One’s site proclaims, and indeed, the main appeal of a N.Y.-to-D.C. hyperloop is the liberation of precious minutes for Manhattanites rushing to Capitol Hill. But the human risks of hurtling through a pressurized, near-airless tube go far beyond barfing and claustrophobia (which are also very real). Let’s say a section of that thin metal tube became damaged by, say, a bomb blast, and exposed to the atmosphere. The ultra-poweful front of air would instantly turn human cargo into jelly. To be sure, an subterranean hyperloop like the one Musk tweeted about would be safer than above-ground models, but not necessarily impervious to death-by-physics.
3. Freight could work, but what’s the advantage?
If the tube doesn’t work for people, could it work for objects? Sure, stuff might not object to a brief, cramped, nauseating ride. But hyperloop doesn’t address freight’s longest-standing problem. While bidirectional elevators could ferry passengers throughout the four cities to hyperloop stations, there’s no clear solution for carrying shipments to their final destinations. Hyperloop seems to have all the drawbacks of traditional rail freight: To tackle the first and last mile (or several hundred miles), “trucks will still have to queue up to load and unload freight,” Amelia Regan, a professor of transportation systems engineering at the University of California, told Trucks.comin May. The advantage for a shipping company to use hyperloop over a truck could be cost, but…
4. Costs are very, very high
Bringing down the price of a whooshing “vactrain” is the other essential task. Musk has promised that constructing a hyperloop would be far more dollar-efficient than would-be competitors like high-speed rail—with low prices passed onto passengers.
But estimates attached to feasibility studies rival the outlandish costs of California’s beleaguered $68 billion, 800-mile high-speed rail project, which the hyperloop was always supposed to beat. In 2016, according to leaked documents from Hyperloop One obtained by Forbes, “a 107-mile loop around the Bay Area alone—either by tunnel or a mix of tunnel and elevated track—would cost between $9 billion and $13 billion, or between $84 million and $121 million per mile.”
For a project that spans the Northeast Corridor—home of some of the most expensive and densely developed real estate in North America, land acquisition costs (and lawsuits) would surely rule out an above-ground hyperloop model.One complaint: Cost-efficient, climate-friendly transportation options that don’t turn humans into mush already exist.
Of course, Musk is laying bets on his Boring Company, which aims to reduce current tunneling costs by a factor of 10. It’ll have to. Right now, tunneling even short distances is wildly costly and disruptive; using existing technology, a 200-plus mile subterranean connection would be off-the-charts expensive. For some Northeast Corridor perspective: The Federal Railroad Administration has a plan to replace the two-track Civil-War-era tunnel beneath West Baltimore that has long been a bottleneck for passenger and freight traffic. That replacement tunnel, yet unbuilt, would be 3.6 miles long; it’s expected to cost at least $4.5 billion.
The funding gap for the decaying Northeast Corridor, the rail line that serves 750,000 passengers each day on old-school locomotives between Boston and Washington, D.C., is about $20 billion. Let’s say, generously, that Musk figures out how to tunnel for $100 million per mile. Digging 225 miles of tunnel for a hyperloop between New York and D.C. would be roughly enough to upgrade the entire 457-mile Northeast Corridor. And that’s before the costs of construction.
5. Yeah, but what if this is really all about building Elon’s Musk’s Martian colony?
Hyperloop has a long way to go to prove itself a worthy transit investment for Earth. But here’s the thing people may forget: Musk wants to colonize Mars. Sure, he talks good game about wanting to improve the lives of commuters. But, really: He wants to colonize Mars.
"I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humans],” Musk said last year. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out… The alternative is, become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.”
Transportation is central to that alternative. Musk has plainly stated that a hyperloop on Mars would be a straighter shot than on Earth, thanks to air pressure differences and the lack of pesky human property owners to burrow beneath. “On Mars you basically just need a track,” he said at a 2016 award ceremony for a Hyperloop design competition. You might be able to just have a road, honestly. [It would] go pretty fast.” He is likely keen on lowering the costs of drilling to bring transit to the Red Planet—which could be the Boring Company’s raison d’être.
"Once that transport system is built," Musk said last year, “there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet."
To be a little conspiratorial: What if these hyperloops on the home planet amount to test-tracks for Mars?
So far, transit wonks have heaped derision on the hyperloop concept for reasons one through four, listed above—plus the fact that cost-efficient, climate-friendly transportation options that don’t turn humans into mush already exist: electric buses, high-speed rail, medium-speed rail. These modes have the benefit of existing networks of infrastructure to support and expand them. And they need all the support they can get.
The Mars angle gets less attention, but it troubles me. Earth is headed for climate catastrophe. Cleaning up transportation, one of the world’s heaviest contributors of greenhouse gases, is among the worthiest challenges for our time. Musk, to his credit, has already served up helpful ideas on this front (see: Tesla, not to mention the company’s acquisition of SolarCity and its role in de-carbonizing the grid). But the man is playing two games at once: problem solving for planetary redemption, and planning for planetary doom. On which would you prefer to bet billions?