The boring machine. (Source: Boring Company)

Elon Musk’s Crazy, Inspiring Tunnel

(The Bloomberg View) -- Elon Musk — proprietor of a rocket company, an electric-car vendor and a neurotechnology startup, among other endeavors — may be embarking on his biggest challenge yet: improving urban transit on the cheap.

Musk’s Boring Co. was recently selected to build a new transit link between downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport. He envisions 16-passenger electric-powered pods that “skate” underneath the city at up to 150 miles per hour, covering the route in just 12 minutes, compared with about 45 minutes by train.

It sounds great, if a little puzzling. Musk will work with untested technology and an unorthodox design. His estimates of how long it take to build, how much it will cost, and how many people it will serve are, let’s say, optimistic, even by his elevated standards. And plenty of regulatory questions will need settling before he can break ground.

All the same, wish him well. With transit costs rising and service deteriorating in many U.S. cities, bold ideas are in short supply. Total North American ridership has been falling since 2014. By one estimate, ailing transit systems will require $122 billion in investment by 2032. “It sucks,” Musk recently said, with some accuracy.

Making things better will be a defining challenge for cities in the years ahead — and businesses should be an essential part of the effort.

That would be nothing new. Throughout U.S. history, building transport networks has tended to be a joint public-private effort. Nineteenth-century railroad barons made common cause with government backers (not least: Abraham Lincoln) to connect the continent by train. Civil aviation’s early expansion owed nearly as much to federal safety provisions as to commercial innovation. In recent years, such cooperation has helped transform the space business into a booming and dynamic part of the economy.

Musk’s latest scheme is of a piece with this tradition.

For one thing, it’ll bring fresh thinking to the challenges of urban construction. Even if the Chicago tunnel isn’t as “transformative” as its backers hope — at best, it’ll carry 2,000 passengers an hour, about 60 percent of the train’s capacity — it could significantly reduce the time and expense of drilling underground. That would be a major accomplishment in its own right, and could be a boon to other cities struggling to expand subway systems.

Another advantage is the project’s proposed public cost: $0.00. Musk plans to fund construction himself and later profit from ticket sales and advertising. Chicago’s mayor insists that “no taxpayer funding” will be on the line and that protections will be in place “against any costs incurred by an incomplete project.” Such municipal promises tend be elastic, of course, but this is the right approach to funding an experimental scheme, and Chicago should stick with it.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of this project, though, is symbolic. Urban transport is likely to get much more diverse in the years ahead, possibly including autonomous buses and cabs, air taxis or flying cars, shared bikes and scooters, Ubers, and maybe a hyperloop or two. Much of this stuff may fail. But progress requires experimentation, broadmindedness and a willingness to work with ambitious entrepreneurs. With taxpayer protections in place, this should be nothing to fear.

Even as technology has transformed nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives in recent years, commuting remains about as slow and wearying as it was a generation ago. Bringing Silicon Valley’s inventive ethos to the urban grid should only help.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.