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Elon Musk’s tunneling project awaiting permits; LA Metro tunneling project underway


July, 2017
G. Wilkins


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Railway corridor under construction

Map of railway corridor under construction

Source: Jerjozwik via Wikipedia

Despite all the concerns and red tape surrounding his concept for city transportation, Elon Musk isn’t the only one building tunnels under Los Angeles.

Last week, CBS2 Los Angeles reported on the “new network of massive rail tunnels” being built to improve the city’s infamous traffic congestion and poor transit system to create a light-rail line from Crenshaw’s Expo Line to LAX. The light-rail line will be nine miles long.

Musk has previously said that his talks with Los Angeles officials are going well, but it still seems that permits have been Musk’s biggest obstacle so far, and there have been many questions about whether a network of tunnels beneath an earthquake-vulnerable city would be a good idea. Even so, the tunneling project for the light-rail system seems to have been cleared with comparatively little fuss. Boring began about a month ago, and the $2 billion project (via a $25 per year tax which started eight years ago) is slated for completion by 2021.

If permits are to be such an issue for Elon Musk, who very publicly and in numerous ways seeks to better traditional transportation systems, then why is another massive undertaking such as a nine-mile tunnel under the same city already underway, especially when some other cities are expressing so much interest in Musk’s plan?

The world cannot know for sure without official documents or statements from either party, but some possibilities do stand out. For one, a major tunnel network beneath LA is quite the radical idea, let alone one where vehicles are carried along by electric sleds, per Musk’s design. Further, there’s a considerable difference between one tunnel to expand the city’s Metro system and an entire network of tunnels, and the concerns about earthquakes are not unfounded despite his assurances otherwise. Musk may have a long road ahead of him to prove the efficiency and safety of his system before officials in Los Angeles embrace it.

By contrast, the traditional Metro system is already proven, and its expansion has been a long time coming. At this time it does not require an entire network of tunnels, and it comes from LA Metro– a trusted county agency that has run Los Angeles’ Metro system since 1993– rather than one stranger. Granted, that stranger created PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla (whose Model X SUV just got the highest safety rating an SUV has ever received), and with each day comes closer to making other out-of-the-box ideas like Hyperloop a reality.

Though without documentation we can only speculate about Elon Musk’s troubles with the bureaucracy of things, there are some good reasons beyond Musk’s résumé for Los Angeles and other cities and states around the continent to pay close attention.

While public transit is crucial for many countries, the United States has instead been largely built around personal transportation, which causes situations like Los Angeles’ legendary traffic jams. Elon Musk’s vision, using platforms to lower entire vehicles into tunnels and whisk them away at high speed, facilitates personal transportation, while an expansion of public transit does not. While there may be an argument to be had about the path of least resistance, improving upon the most used system can yield strong results. Officials should note that despite the state of traffic not only in LA but in cities all over the United States, every one of the drivers that comprise that traffic chose for whatever reason to be there instead of taking public transit.

Part of the issue is the availability of public transit, where expansion would help. However, another major aspect is that drivers want, or need, to use their personal transportation. If he can prove its safety and efficiency, Musk’s system may do more to alleviate LA’s traffic than a light-rail tunnel can.

Reading the buzz around both the new Los Angeles light-rail project and Elon Musk’s ongoing work suggests that there is heavy demand for both expansion and overhaul of existing transit systems to make them safer and more efficient. LA officials appear to have little reason not to root for Musk’s project to succeed, but it needs to prove that it is safe and efficient in a place like LA before it can get pick up permits as easily or becomes as ubiquitous as a city transit agency’s light-rail system.

  1. Header Photo by METRO96 via Wikipedia Commons
  2. http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2017/07/13/rail-line-under-la-airport/
  3. https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/876517194997178368
  4. https://www.nhtsa.gov/vehicle/2017/TESLA/MODEL%252520X%25252060D/SUV/AWD


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