Elon Musk, chief executive officer and co-founder of Tesla Motors Inc., listens during a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and technology leaders at Trump Tower in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg)

Elon Musk's Tunnel Vision for Los Angeles

(Bloomberg) -- Elon Musk’s promise to whisk travelers by tunnel from Dodger Stadium to Los Angeles International Airport in 10 minutes seems like the Holy Grail for the traffic-clogged metropolis of more than 10 million people.

But not everyone is on board. Building a high-speed tunnel network in Los Angeles means not just digging under mountains and around oil fields but also contending with a notoriously fragmented political landscape. Los Angeles has no shortage of deep-pocketed, legally savvy neighborhood organizations willing to wield some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the U.S. to stop Musk’s Boring Co. and its tunnel-boring machines.

The city’s tortured effort to build a subway along Wilshire Blvd., the densely populated corridor that runs 16 miles from the Pacific Ocean to downtown L.A., is one cautionary tale. It took 20 years to build a much-truncated stretch of four stations west of downtown after it was first put on the agenda, and work has started only recently to extend the line halfway toward the coast.

“The bureaucratic hurdles for any big project are just massive,” said Ethan Elkind, an environmental law expert at the University of California in Berkeley and Los Angeles, and the author of “Railtown,” a history of L.A.’s metro rail system. “Musk is definitely going to run into all sorts of environmental and regulatory issues.”

To make it worse, local homeowner groups are notoriously powerful and, particularly in affluent neighborhoods, have the resources to fund lawsuits to block a project they deem harmful to property values. Residents of Brentwood and the Pacific Palisades, two wealthy enclaves on the west side, already filed a lawsuit in May against the city to prevent letting Musk build a 2.7-mile test tunnel without prior environmental review. Homeowners there can also lean on politicians to do their bidding. 

“I doubt that Musk will get much consensus out of local communities,” said Elkind. “The only consensus there’s going to be is that the impact of the project will need to be felt by someone else.”

Musk, the chief executive of Tesla Inc., made what appeared to be a pointed dig at Los Angeles last week. He was in Chicago to unveil plans for a high-speed train service that will make the approximately 15-mile trip from downtown to O’Hare International Airport in 12 minutes, a fraction of the current commute. “One of the great things about Chicago,” he said at the June 14 event, is that the number of approving authorities is small. “In some places,” Musk added, there could be “upwards of 12 or 15 different separate authorities in order to get approval to do something.”

One municipality within the Los Angeles metropolitan area has already succeeded in pushing Musk's project away. Culver City went public in April with a list of concerns about plans to exempt the tunnel from the California Environmental Quality Act. The Los Angeles City Council has yet to vote on letting the test tunnel proceed without environmental review.

“We feel we need to follow the rules as much as possible,” Culver City Mayor Thomas Small said in an interview. Boring Co. told the mayor last month that it wouldn’t build the test tunnel under his town.

Small blamed a lack of communication and collaboration between various local and state agencies as the main impediment to large infrastructure projects getting built in the region. Nonetheless, he said, there’s more consensus now to accelerate some projects because of how important they are. 

“If the smallest-scale pilot project is already getting challenged, that’s a good prediction of the kind of problems he’s going to run into,” said Brett Oberst, an environmental law attorney with Doll Amir & Eley LLP in Los Angeles.

The history of the Los Angeles subway system is populated with politicians and organizations who had the power to almost single-handedly stop the project. After a 1985 methane explosion in a Ross Dress for Less store, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman forced a bill through Congress that declared a large part of the proposed route through his district a “methane zone.” That law blocked expansion for almost 30 years.

And a little further to the west, the Beverly Hills Unified School District has been fighting since 2012 to prevent construction of the metro tunnel under a high school. As recently as January, the school district filed a new lawsuit challenging the adequacy of a supplemental environmental analysis that had been prompted by an earlier lawsuit.

Musk presented his plans last month to mostly enthusiastic supporters at a Jewish temple along the 405 Freeway, where he told the audience the soul-destroying traffic fluctuates between the seventh and eighth circles of hell. “If you can build a tunnel in L.A., you can build one anywhere,” Musk said.

A large network of tunnels could transport pods with as many as 16 passengers, or a single vehicle, according to Musk’s plan. They could travel at high speeds to numerous small stations spread along the routes, although the current concept doesn’t specify a number of stations. The price for pedestrians would be less than what they currently pay for public transportation. The base fare on the Los Angeles Metro is $1.75. 
 

Musk, 46, lives in Bel Air, adjacent to the 405, which is the main north-south artery that he needs to take down to Hawthorne, where his SpaceX rocket company is based. He first floated plans for a tunnel system in December 2016, saying in a post on Twitter that he was fed up with L.A. traffic and would “build a tunnel boring machine.” Many thought he was joking, but he elaborated in a 2017 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek on his plans to create roads that run through underground tunnels.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Musk’s dream will do much to reduce traffic in Los Angeles, which is ranked the most congested city in the world by Inrix Inc., a transportation analysis company.

“It would have to be huge,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the Metrans Transportation Center. “If it’s not going to be huge, it won’t have any impact.’’

To do that on the 405, where more than 300,000 cars travel every day on average between the suburban San Fernando Valley and the commercial hubs on Los Angeles’s west side, the Boring Co.’s tunnels would have to transport the equivalent of around 50,000 cars a day, Giuliano said.

The layout of Los Angeles makes the region difficult to serve with public transportation, Giuliano said, unlike centralized cities such as New York or Paris. One reason is that there’s so much unmet demand for travel on roads and highways—people would like to use the freeways more but don’t because they’re too jammed—that rail and other attempts to reduce traffic have hardly made a dent, she said.

“It’s pretty usual to have visionaries come around who think they have found a solution to our traffic problem, but they usually don’t get as much attention,” Giuliano said. “I don’t think Musk and his people have really thought through all the practical problems.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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