The Boring Company today won an amazing victory in Chicago with the announcement that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had selected the Elon Musk tunnel project to design, build and operate a rapid transit link between O & # 39; Hare and the central business of the district city. Even more surprising: Emanuel insists that the project will not require taxpayer money. The Boring Company has promised to pay for it.
The project will cost less than $ 1 billion, sources said at Chicago Tribune . But the civil engineers, infrastructure executives and public transport experts we spoke with are extremely skeptical of that figure.
Musk has said that tunnels are the only way to "solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic." And their promise to dig these tunnels faster and at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods is what has aroused so much municipal interest. The city of Chicago has not launched the offer, so it's hard to say specifically what will happen if that calculation is too low. But we do know, in general, that the project will take more time and will require more loans if the projections of the Bored Company are out of the base. That could mean more financial problems for Musk, more scrutiny for Emanuel and his administration, and another failed transportation project for the city of Chicago.
According to the Tribune:
In exchange for paying to To build the new transit system, Boring would keep the revenues from the transit fees of the system and any money generated by advertisements, brands and sales in the vehicle , Rivkin and the company said. The ownership of the twin tunnels has not been determined, but the Emanuel administration plans to seek a long-term lease for the Musk company, said a source familiar with the proposal.
Later in the article, Deputy Mayor of Chicago Robert Rivkin is quoted as saying that the city will negotiate to guarantee it "Share the significant profits that are obtained" from the project of the boring company. Rivkin declined to offer a timeline of when the project could be built, but said Boring was "very optimistic about his timeline."
At a press conference in Chicago on Thursday with Mayor Emanuel, Musk was optimistic about power to cover the daily running costs of the rapid transit line, but he was more circumspect about the debts he would probably accumulate when building it. "I think it's very unlikely that he can not offset his operating costs – basically, it's sure to cover his operating costs." He added: "If it provides a good return on capital, it is a separate question."
When asked what he personally got from the project, Musk said: "First of all, I should start by saying … What I would ask is … this is something difficult that we are doing, it's a difficult thing, it's something new, and I hope you encourage us because, if we succeed, it's going to be great for the city. , I suppose that I and others will lose a lot of money. "
Consider the immense costs associated with transportation projects in the world, especially those that require tunneling: the Second Avenue Metro in New York City cost about $ 2.5 billion per mile, while the Extension of Line 14 in Paris ran around $ 450 million per mile. The Boring Company says it can dig 18 miles of tunnels for a fraction of those prices.
"What will reduce costs below the metro in Paris by a factor of 10?" Said Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. "I really want to find out."
Samaras noted that Boring Company has been selected as what is called a D-BOM contractor, which means design, construction, finance, operation and maintenance. According to the Federal Highway Administration, a private entity in a D-BOM contract "is responsible for design and construction, as well as long-term operation and / or maintenance services." The public sector secures the financing of the project independently and preserves the operating income risk. "So they're on the hook to make sure this system works well over time," he said.
Others see these projections with more skepticism. Yonah Freemark, an urban planner and journalist who has worked in architecture, planning and transportation, said he was surprised to read about the costs associated with Musk's proposal.
"The first is that a construction cost of $ 500 million to $ 1 billion would be remarkably low, from $ 29 to $ 59 million for tunnels, if the cost of stations and vehicles is excluded," Freemark wrote in an email. "But the stations are probably expensive."
The Boring Company has said it will rehabilitate the Chicago Transit Authority's "high-speed rail" station under Block 37, which was suspended in 2008 due to $ 100 million in cost overruns and limited interest in the private operator of the express service. That rehabilitation will cost at least $ 50 million, and the construction of a new massive station under O & # 39; Hare will probably cost even more. The O & # 39; Hare transit system station will be located near the new global terminal that Emanuel has announced as part of an $ 8.5 billion airport review.
Then there are the vehicles, or "skates" as Musk calls them. The Boring Company says it will use a modified Tesla Model X car chassis as the basis for its so-called public transport system Loop. These vehicles would be transported in "autonomous electric skids" that travel at 125-150 mph. The electric skids will transport between eight and 16 passengers or a vehicle for a single passenger, according to the company's website.
According to Tribune :
The Chicago system is expected to be capable of handling nearly 2,000 passengers per direction per hour, with cars leaving every 30 seconds or two minutes, officials said. from the city. How much a trip will cost is subject to final negotiations, but Boring has set a goal to charge between $ 20 and $ 25, or half the cost of a typical taxi or coach trip to O & # 39; Hare, a familiar source said. with the conversations. .
By comparison, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York can squeeze some 2,000 people into a single underground train. That raises the question: why does Boring Company limit the size and capacity of its vehicles?
Freemark calculates that Boring would need around 61 vehicles in an active fleet. Using some calculations outside the envelope, he calculates that they would want 75 vehicles in total, with some extras for the backup. The buses have a minimum of $ 300,000 to make; trains cost at least $ 2.7 million per car. So, if Musk is manufacturing its vehicles at bus prices, that's about $ 22 million for the fleet. And the fleet will likely need a maintenance facility, which will cost a minimum of $ 30 million, says Freemark. "Add those things, and suddenly Musk plans to spend between $ 348 and $ 848 million to build those 17-mile tunnel, surprisingly less than any similar project," he says.
A more realistic estimate, says Freemark, are two stations for $ 100 million each, vehicles for $ 500,000 each, and a maintenance facility for $ 50 million. "That would leave $ 213 to $ 713 million for the tunnels," he says. "I am quite skeptical, especially because to meet the requirements of safety and ventilation, this tunnel can not be bored directly from the center, there will have to be emergency, escape valves, etc. along its route. will go and what will be its cost? Given the high frequency of vehicles that Musk proposes (departures of 30 seconds), these departures are essential. "
Apart from that, an airport to downtown connection in Chicago is" a good way to demonstrate the focus and costs. " of the boring company, "Samaras said," with much less risk than building a multiple-stop system with car lifts as shown in the original launch video of the boring company. "
On its website, the boring company says it can reduce the costs associated with tunneling by two methods: reducing the diameter of the tunnel and increasing the efficiency of tunnel boring machines. automation, increase the amount of energy of the drilling machine and replace the diesel fuel with electric power.
Our first look at the boring Company was a short video tweeted by Musk in April 2017 that showed that individual vehicles were lowered under It is a high-speed journey through the Musk tunnels on electric skates, and after another short elevator ride, the car returns to the street level.
The Chicago plan is certainly a departure from that original vision, but the great infrastructure products They are difficult to do in the United States. It took almost 100 years to get traction in the Second Avenue Metro in New York; Across the city, the costs associated with the massive East Side Access project under Grand Central Station have skyrocketed to $ 12 billion. The California bullet train project is moving forward, despite not having adequate financing prospects to complete an initial segment with the possibility of attracting passengers.
"It is very difficult to build something new in the US of scale," Dean Wise, former vice president of network strategy at BNSF Railway, said The Verge. "And as someone who is funded mainly by private funds, we have a billion dollars of hot money in our hands, ready to build some facilities on the west coast." And we saw the delays of five years, the eight-year delay , and now nothing happens … When the projects are not built at all, why should anyone get involved in that effort? "
So, why is Musk getting involved? that effort, when the possibility of failure is so high? At the Thursday press conference, the billionaire addressed him directly: "You know that I think there is a role for skeptics, people should question things, and it should not be taken as given that things will work because often things do not work. "