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11th of December 2018

Automotive



Locals Kill One of Elon Musk's Plans for a Tunnel Under LA

Lawsuits, man. Elon Musk’s Boring Company has abandoned its plan to dig a tunnel under the west side of Los Angeles after it and the city settled a lawsuit brought by two area neighborhood groups who opposed the scheme.

The project, announced last spring, had entailed building a 2.7-mile test tunnel under Sepulveda Boulevard, adjacent to the crowded 405 freeway, under public property. The Boring Company had hoped to use the tunnel’s construction process to understand the specific challenges of tunneling in this part of LA's soil and bedrock, and to refine its proposed mass transit system.

What the Boring Company calls “the Loop” would shoot passenger-packed pods on electric-powered platforms through a network of underground tunnels at 150 miles an hour and, thus, strike a death blow to LA’s traffic and pollution problem. Musk says the Boring Company’s tech should make tunnel boring as much as 15 times faster than today’s processes, and reduce its cost by a factor of 10. Professional tunnel engineers have thrown doubt on these claims, but if Musk deserves credit for anything in his car-building, rocket-shooting career, it’s feats of engineering mastery.

The abandoned Sepulveda tunnel, though, points to a thornier truth: When it comes to infrastructure, particularly in California, the moon-shot tech might be the easy part. It’s getting through the public approval and permitting process that’s likely to kill your dreams.

This lawsuit, filed last May against the city of Los Angeles by the Sunset Coalition and the Brentwood Residents Coalition, alleged that the Boring Company had improperly evaded environmental review by suggesting the tunnel would be a stand-alone project. California’s environmental review laws do not allow infrastructure projects to be approved piecemeal, and the groups argued that the Boring Company’s proposed “proof-of-concept” tunnel was just one part of what would one day be a sprawling tunnel network across all of LA County. In a joint statement, the parties said the suit was “amicably settled,” but did not reveal its details.

Critics had predicted that California’s environmental review rules would prove a hurdle for the Boring Company’s ambitious plans to eradicate traffic in LA. Juan Matute, who studies urban mobility as associate director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, says the idea of innovating in the public right-of-way is philosophically at odds with the way environmental regulations work in the state right now—for better or for worse.

“The approach is fundamentally opposed to what local governments and public sector stakeholders have come to expect from 45-plus years of environmental review: that the public will know everything about the project and potential risks to the environment before public officials approve even a small phase of a project,” Matute told WIRED in May.

Still, the Boring Company has plenty of work in the area. Musk has said that he would like to weave hundreds or even thousands of small stations throughout the metro, supported by layers and layers of 14-foot-diameter tunnels. Next month, BoCo plans to open a 2-mile test tunnel in Hawthorne, right near SpaceX headquarters, to the public. It says it’s moving forward with plans to build another test tunnel, making it easier to get to traffic-engulfed Dodger Stadium. In July, Musk quietly founded a new company called The Brick Store LLC, which will sell bricks made up of the soil extracted from its various infrastructure projects in a brick-and-mortar store just above the exit for its test tunnel in Hawthorne.

The Boring Company also has proposed building a 35-mile “Loop” to connect Maryland and Washington, DC, and has permission to begin preliminary digging in both. And in June, the city of Chicago selected the Boring Company to “enter into exclusive negotiations” to build a high-speed connection between its downtown and O’Hare Airport. (The company did not respond to questions about the status of the Chicago project.) Official buy-in is vital for major infrastructure work. But as the scuttled Sepulveda project makes clear, it takes a lot more than that to dig your way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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