How to beat gridlock? Dig, says SpaceX CEO Musk

How to beat gridlock? Dig, says SpaceX CEO Musk

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has championed self-driving cars, solar- and battery-powered homes and businesses, humans colonizing Mars, and long-distance trains zooming through vacuum tubes at 600 MPH.

But one problem isn’t being solved swiftly enough for Musk, CEO of Hawthorne-based SpaceX and electric car-maker Tesla, which has a design center in the city. 

“Traffic is driving me nuts,” Musk tweeted early Saturday morning. “Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging. ... It shall be called ‘The Boring Company.’” 

And it turns out the idea of boring tunnels for new highways in traffic-prone areas isn’t all that far-fetched. 

“The tunnel business worldwide is booming now,” said Thom Neff, president of OckhamKonsult, an infrastructure management consulting firm based in Boston. Neff performed a risk assessment for the Highway 99 Deep Tunnel Project in Seattle.

Big Bertha, a giant tunnel-boring machine is now powering through 2 miles of underground Seattle, building a roadway tunnel that will replace the structurally challenged Alaskan Way Viaduct.

 As populations move toward such densely populated cities as Seattle, traffic worsens. With little surface space, city planners look underground for ways to move traffic, said Neff, who is a fan of Musk’s but wary of the high costs of extensive tunnel-boring projects.

“The problem is tunneling is very expensive,” Neff said. “To build (roadway) tunnels in an urban area is not cheap.”

With vehicle-trafficked tunnels, size matters, he said. Musk would have to buy massive, expensive tunnel-boring machines to bring his latest dream to life. 

Big Bertha stalled and caught fire two years ago, only resuming work in March. The performance interruption wasn’t cheap. Cost overruns are in the millions of dollars, and are largely a result of Bertha’s record massive 57-foot, 4-inch diameter, Neff said.

Also, a tunnel for cars must be ventilated for fumes and fire protection must be added, both of which add to the cost.

But Musk is never one to be swayed by price tags or the thinking of others. As he explained in a TED talk interview last year:

“A good framework for thinking is physics. Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there,” Musk said. 

Ater his initial tunnel-embracing tweets, Musk followed up with a tongue-in-cheek mission statement for his proposed new company: “Boring, it’s what we do.”

After another 2 hours: “I am actually going to do this.” Then, as if to seal the deal, he changed his Twitter biography to: “Tesla, SpaceX, Tunnels (yes, tunnels) & OpenAI.”

A SpaceX representative declined to be interviewed about this new venture, calling the tweets self-explanatory.

Southern California’s earthquake-prone topography wouldn’t preclude a network of traveled tunnels, said seismologist Lucy Jones.

“Tunnels are some of the safest structures,” Jones said. “We don’t see collapse of tunnels as a result of earthquakes. The shaking underground is less than above ground. At the surface, you get twice as much shaking as you get below the surface.”

President-Elect Donald Trump, who has promised to double the county’s spending on infrastructure improvements, snagged Musk to be on his economic advisory team last week. It’s unclear if Musk and Trump have discussed tunnels, but they met together last week with other high-profile tech-industry leaders. 

This isn’t the first time Musk has advocated for tunnels. During a January design competition for the Hyperloop, a passenger train he envisions will speed through a vacuum tube at hundreds of miles per hour, Musk said:

“It’s a really simple and obvious idea and I wish more people would do it: build more tunnels. Tunnels are great. It’s just a hole in the ground, it’s not that hard. But if you have tunnels in cities you would massively alleviate congestion and you could have tunnels at all different levels; you could probably have 30 layers of tunnels and completely fix the congestion problem in high-density cities.” 

In Los Angeles County, three tunneling projects are in the works. A tunnel-boring machine has been carving out the underground Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project light-rail system since February and should finish in the spring. 

Tunneling in downtown Los Angeles to complete the Regional Connector rail line will begin early next year. And tunneling for the heavy rail Purple Line extension in at Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue will commence by the end of 2017, said Metro spokesman Dave Sotero.

However, train-tunnel boring machines are smaller than roadway tunnel machines, Sotero said. The train tunnel machines used in the Metro rail projects measure 22 feet in diameter.

A possible, 6.3-mile tunnel to close the gap of the 710 Freeway from Valley Boulevard through El Sereno, South Pasadena and Pasadena connecting cars from where the freeway ends at the 10 to the 210/134 freeway junction would require a 58.5-feet diameter machine, according to the Environmental Impact Report.

The EIR puts the price at between $3 billion and $5 billion, and opponents say the price will be much higher. The project was not on the list of projects in the voter-approved Measure M in November.

 

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