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When Elon Musk Tunnels Under Your Home

In this June 14, 2018, file photo, Tesla CEO and founder of the Boring Company Elon Musk speaks at a news conference in Chicago.

In this June 14, 2018, file photo, Tesla CEO and founder of the Boring Company Elon Musk speaks at a news conference in Chicago. AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The billionaire is drilling for futuristic transit under Los Angeles. He didn’t have to ask the neighbors first.

Vicky Warren feels like she’s been attacked from all sides lately. Across the street from her rental apartment in the working-class Los Angeles County city of Hawthorne, noisy planes take off and land at all hours, diverted to the local municipal airport from wealthier Santa Monica, where neighbor complaints have restricted air traffic. On the other side of her apartment, cars on the 105 Freeway sound the frustration of L.A. traffic. She’s even getting assailed within her walls: Termites have invaded so completely that she can’t keep any food uncovered. Flea bites cover her legs; rats are aggressively attacking the boxes she has stored in her garage.

So Warren was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that invaders are coming from underground, too. She lives on 120th Street, where 40 feet underground Elon Musk’s Boring Company is building a 14-foot-wide, mile-long tunnel to pilot a futuristic transit system untested anywhere in the world. When it’s finished in December, the tunnel will start at the nearby headquarters of SpaceX, Musk’s aerospace company, and end a few blocks past Warren’s apartment. “We’re just sandwiched in between so much already,” Warren told me, shaking her head.

Musk sees the future of American transportation in tunnels like this one. Inside them, electric skates would whisk cars and pods containing passengers to their destinations; eventually, tunnels could also be used for a “hyperloop,” which would transport people even faster through a network of low-pressure tubes. Musk has pledged to revolutionize tunneling technology, and says that digging 40 feet underground will make less noise than someone walking on the surface would. Musk fans and mayors love the idea—the Boring Company told me a new city makes contact daily—and municipalities like Hawthorne have been quick to approve the tunneling. But aboveground, where the poverty rate is 19.2 percent and the median household income is $45,089, people like Warren struggle to meet basic housing needs. They know nothing about Elon Musk or his dreams.

Even if Musk is building world-changing transportation underneath Hawthorne, and even if the residents ultimately welcome the technology, he is undertaking this project with strikingly little public input or oversight.

The Boring Company’s chosen tunneling site, 120th Street, is a hodgepodge of houses, random businesses, and, most of all, cars. On one side sits the high fence of the Hawthorne airport and a flight school; on the other side is the housing complex where Warren lives. A row of defeated-looking single-family houses sits behind locked fences, their windows grimy from the four lanes of traffic whizzing by. Nearby 119th Place is a tightly-knit neighborhood where the homes are small, with pocket-size front yards and barking dogs. They are largely owned by black and Latino families who bought here because it was affordable, being sandwiched in between a freeway and an airport. That affordability comes with a trade-off: The greater Los Angeles area has the worst pollution in the country, and it’s even worse near freeways and airports.

I talked to a dozen people who live along the tunnel’s route, and most said they hadn’t witnessed any extra noise or traffic. But none had been informed ahead of time that a private company would be digging a tunnel beneath the street. Some only learned about the tunnel in mid-2018—not when the digging started, in 2017—because the company purchased a dilapidated house on 119th Place for nearly $500,000 in cash. (Other homes in the neighborhood are assessed at between $200,000 and $500,000.) The company plans to install an elevator in the garage of the house to practice raising cars from the tunnel to ground level. It says it will rent the rest of the house to SpaceX employees.

The company sent letters to some neighbors about the project and held public meetings to discuss it with residents in July 2018. But when those public meetings occurred, the tunnel was nearly complete. This is an oversight that would have been unimaginable in a higher-income neighborhood. Indeed, when Musk tried to build another underground tunnel in a wealthier neighborhood in West L.A., residents quickly sued. The project got tied up in court, and the Boring Company said it was no longer a priority. This dynamic is common in the building of public infrastructure, too. Wealthier individuals are more likely to have the time and money it takes to launch a successful nimby campaign.

Yet, in many ways, the tunnel is a triumph of privatization. Plans to extend the Los Angeles Metro system under the Sepulveda Pass first went on the ballot in 2016, after years of planning; the project itself won’t be completed for decades, because of federal and state regulations. Musk just needs to find the money. Since the Boring Company is private, it is able to avoid the years of tedious environmental reviews required when the government tries to build transit. It is also exempt from “Buy American” requirements necessary for projects that receive federal funding. This allows the company to try a new technology much faster than if the government got involved. Musk’s SpaceX was able to lower the cost of space travel through private rocketry, and the Boring Company hopes to do the same for tunneling, a spokesman told me.

But environmental review and public input exist for a reason—to make sure everyone impacted by a project has a say. That input is anathema to entrepreneurs who want to move quickly with low overhead and few regulations. That may have worked for Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg, but they were tinkering with computers, not digging transit under someone else’s backyard.

Many of Hawthorne’s residents said they felt like even if they had had their say, it wouldn’t have mattered. “They have so much money, so much capital, to make things happen, that your vote wouldn’t mean anything,” Fred Lopez, who lives a few houses down from the Boring Company house, told me. During the planning-commission hearing in which the Boring Company’s plans were discussed, one resident, Sammy Andrade, said he was worried about whether the digging would make his home sink into the ground eventually. Then he said, “But I’m a nobody, and I know there’s a lot of political money involved with this big project for the city.”

The residents are right: It might have been hard to stand in the way of what many places see as progress. Musk’s plans have cities across the country salivating. He says he’s gotten verbal permission to build a hyperloop between New York and Washington D.C., and he joined Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in June to announce plans for an underground transit system between Chicago and O’Hare International Airport.

Hawthorne seems particularly eager to make sure that Musk and the Boring Company keep their transportation research in the city, and not elsewhere. “We want this to be an awesome project that’s going to propel us into the future and determine what the future of transportation is,” Hawthorne Mayor Alex Vargas said during the 2017 meeting when the digging was approved. Mike Talleda, the chairperson of the Hawthorne planning commission, reminded his colleagues during a 2018 meeting that although the project seemed a little “James Bond,” the people who work at the Boring Company “are pretty high-tech, qualified engineers” and they could be trusted to dig a tunnel right. “Someday we might be able to say, ‘Hey, this new system began in our little neighborhood right under my house,’” Talleda said. When one member moved to amend the zoning code so that the Boring Company could build the elevator, two others stumbled over each other in their rush to second him. It passed 5–0.

No American city has anything even vaguely similar to Musk’s project. That may be partly due to the fact that transit experts say the smartest way to improve public transit is to expand upon existing systems—add more rail lines to existing subways, more buses to existing routes. Even cities building these systems for the first time tend to integrate them with other dominant modes of transit, taking into consideration how people are already moving through the space. The hyperloop, by contrast, is “incompatible with every other mode of transportation,” as Jeff Tumlin, a transit consultant at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, told me. It would be difficult to link up the tunnel with Metro Center, a subway station in Central L.A., and there are few public-transit modes near the Hawthorne location where the Boring Company is digging. (A Boring Company spokesman told me that many of its tunneling projects will someday hook up to public transit.)

Musk seems more interested in finding a convenient test site for a bold idea, one that he believes leapfrogs existing technological options, rather than doing the tedious work of improving an old system. “We seem to be having two separate conversations: one focused on getting around congestion with flying cars and boring tunnels, and another focused on actually solving congestion with pricing policies and public transit,” says Molly Turner, a lecturer at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Earlier this month, Musk publicly criticized plans to build high-speed rail in front of a room of mayors working on precisely those projects.

SpaceX was also one of the most vocal opponents to a proposed apartment complex adjacent to its headquarters, the very same headquarters where the test tunnel begins, even though urban planners say that building housing near employment is one of the very best ways to reduce traffic and improve transit for everyone. “While we do believe there is an absolute need for affordable housing in the city of Hawthorne, we do not think that this specific site is the place for it,” a SpaceX director of facilities, who is now working on the test-tunnel project, said in 2017.

Musk is not alone in his approach—most Americans do not seem particularly interested in investing in existing transportation technology either. They prefer, instead, to dream up new ways to get around. For example: A proposed tax in Nashville to fund public-infrastructure improvements was defeated because opponents argued that cities shouldn’t be investing in “outdated” technologies like trains, since autonomous cars will soon make them obsolete. “I worry that the big new tech ideas will distract us—or worse, divert resources—from the more complex policy decisions and infrastructure investments we need to make to solve the root causes of our mobility problems,” Turner told me. Some Americans think public transit is so bad, it seems better to throw it all away and build something new.

Indeed, Musk seems to have first gotten excited about the hyperloop while pooh-poohing another publicly funded transit system. In 2013, in a blog post on the website of Tesla, his electric-car company, Musk criticized plans for a high-speed rail in California. In 2008, voters had approved a $9 billion bond to build one, but Musk predicted it would be expensive and slow. Instead, he proposed the hyperloop, which would whisk people in aluminum pods through vacuum tubes elevated on columns running next to Interstate 5, California’s biggest north–south route. Since the state was throwing away its money on high-speed rail, he would have to fund it himself.

The project lay dormant until late 2016, when Musk tweeted that “traffic is driving me nuts,” and that he was “going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.” By January 2017, he had announced plans to build a tunnel across from SpaceX. By April, he’d acquired a tunnel-boring machine and announced a cheeky name for the new venture: the Boring Company.

To dig under a public street, Musk needed the city’s permission, and the Boring Company quickly sought it. By late July 2017, the City of Hawthorne had contracted a consultancy, WSP USA, to research the test tunnel. Specifically, it asked for a “mitigated negative declaration”—essentially a document asking that the Boring Company be exempted from the part of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, that requires an environmental-impact report (EIR). Preparing an EIR could take anywhere from six to 36 months to complete, but an exemption would allow the company to move much faster, relying on its own environmental studies as evidence. From the start, the City appeared to assume that the exemption would come through; Irena Finkelstein, a WSP consultant, wrote that “the entire CEQA clearance process could be completed in less than three months.”

She was right. Less than a month after the initial contract, in August 2017, City Council approved a subsurface easement to allow the Boring Company to construct and operate its test tunnel. The city attorney also declared that the Boring Company was determined exempt under the CEQA. When the council opened the floor for public comment at the meeting, only one person came forward—a man who wanted to make sure the buildings on the surface wouldn’t be affected by the digging underneath, as parts of Hollywood Boulevard had been when the Metropolitan Transit Authority built the Red Line in 1995. The council couldn’t answer his question, but the Boring Company assured him that the digging wouldn’t impact the surface.

The CEQA allows residents 35 days to push back against granted exemptions. After the City of Los Angeles fast-tracked the Boring Company’s plan to build a tunnel in West L.A. in 2018, for example, two neighborhood groups filed a lawsuit, stopping the process. But in Hawthorne, the 35-day window passed with little fanfare. Some of the meetings were called 48 hours in advance, and some negotiations were not open to the public, Juan Matute, the deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, told me. “The Hawthorne tunnel did happen pretty quickly, and it doesn’t seem like anybody regionally was paying attention when that approval happened,” Matute said. “This is typical with CEQA—a community that’s more disadvantaged and not as politically engaged doesn’t have the capacity to file lawsuits.”

The city of Hawthorne did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. A lawyer representing the city said it preferred all inquiries regarding the tunnel be answered by the Boring Company itself.

In public documents, the City indicated that it had published a notice of the hearing at which the Boring Company’s easement was granted in the August 10, 2017, issue of the Hawthorne Press Tribune. The paper has a circulation of 2,750 and is distributed for free at City Hall and other places around town. None of the residents I talked to in Hawthorne had heard of it.

By May 2018, the Boring Company had requested another exemption from the Hawthorne City Council. It wanted to deviate from the tunnel route to build its test elevator in the house it had bought on 119th Place. That required another CEQA exemption, and it also needed the City to amend the Hawthorne Municipal Code, which prohibits research projects in residential neighborhoods. The Boring Company held two public meetings, and after a hearing in August, the city unanimously approved both exemptions, in September 2018.

Even the City seemed taken aback by the speed with which the Boring Company was moving. “Why does this seem so rushed?” the council member Angie Reyes English asked at the September hearing. Brett Horton, who was representing the Boring Company at the hearing, answered that the company had had two public hearings about the project, when the law didn’t require it to have any, and that it is trying to show proof of concept to others. “We are trying to revolutionize transportation,” he said. “We don’t want to get bogged down, and we want to show potential investors, other cities, the city of Hawthorne, our employees, that we can succeed, we will succeed, and we won’t slow down, and we won’t take any approach that doesn’t get us to our goal as quickly as possible.”

As the tunnel neared completion, disruptions to the community increased. The company bought another building, this one on the corner of 120th Street and Prairie Avenue, for $2 million, according to public records, to allow for the extraction of tunneling equipment. Adrian Vega had run a cabinet business in that building for 18 years. When his landlord sold the building, the Boring Company came in and offered Vega’s company, Los Vegas Kitchen Cabinets and Doors, extra cash to get out in three months. Vega took the money, and asked for even more time from the Boring Company, which he was granted. But he couldn’t find another space; since moving in August, his business has been closed and his customers don’t know that he’s moved, he told me.

The tan industrial building still has his business’s name and advertising painted on the side. An arrow next to the text parking in rear now points to a lot surrounded by a fence. Through a gap in it, you can see a giant hole in the ground, next to a large crane. When I asked three construction workers walking to their cars what they were digging, they glanced at one another, said “A hole,” giggled, and walked away. None of the people whose houses backed up onto the lot knew what the digging was for, but all said it was loud early in the morning.

Shunyaa Turner lives in a small house on 119th Place with his wife and two kids. He said that in the past year, they’ve had to battle more pests, such as raccoons, mice, skunks, and opossums, which they’ve never seen before. He isn’t sure if this is related to the digging; the Hawthorne airport has also been doing more construction as it gets busier, so the animals could have fled from there. He and his wife said they’ve also noticed more cracks in their impeccably maintained walkway. Turner, who works as a trash collector for the City of Los Angeles, attended one of the company’s community meetings. He was frustrated by how few of his neighbors showed up, but he knows that some are worried about their immigration status, or have two jobs, or don’t have the time to attend a meeting about something that might be out of their control anyway. “You know, it’s one of the things where if this were Santa Monica, West L.A., any of those areas, they would have come out and stopped this,” he told me.

Jorge Herrera, another resident of 119th Place, told me that he is going to miss Vega, whom he’d grown close to. But most of all, he’s worried about how quickly Hawthorne City Council approved the digging project. “It shouldn’t just be the city of Hawthorne but the whole state of California deciding about what’s going on here,” he said. Council members don’t have expertise on geology or on the long-term effects of digging underground, Herrera told me, as his young daughters played on a small swing in the front yard. But they gave permission to dig. “They didn’t even sleep on it,” he said, shaking his head.

Of course, that’s just the point. Entrepreneurs don’t do things by committee, after all. “You know how many committees we have at Apple? Zero,” Steve Jobs said proudly about Apple in 2010.

But even Musk skeptics admit that there’s something refreshing about a company that can circumvent all the red tape that comes with building a transit project. “This is one of those areas in which the planning world is ripe for disruption,” said Tumlin, the transit consultant. “Public consultation is really important and valuable, super well intended, and rarely delivered effectively.”

Usually, only the most privileged and angry people show up to public meetings, he said, and then delay most things that are proposed. This is why NIMBYs can so easily stop affordable-housing projects in their backyard; planned transit extensions take years to build, and even projects like California’s high-speed rail end up being loathed by many people. They are all projects solved by committee.

The Boring Company told me that it has already come up with some cost and time savings. It modified its boring machine to use an electric, rather than a diesel, motor, which means less pollution, and the machine can operate for longer without having to ventilate the tunnel. It is getting closer to figuring out a new transit method, while the City of Los Angeles perfects existing ones. The company may help drive down the costs of building transit, so more money could go to things such as schools or repairing potholes, it told me. It’s also inspired young inventors across the country to get excited about thinking up new transportation ideas, a spokesman said. It’s learning from its mistakes, too—the company hopes to remedy an early lack of communication with residents and is “taking feedback to heart.”

Musk can also move more nimbly and change up plans much more easily than a government agency. The original contract with the City stipulated that the test tunnel would not be used by the public, but Musk tweeted in late October that the company would provide rides to the public on December 11. He said originally that rather than lugging all the dirt from the tunnel to a dump, he would make bricks out of it and sell them to consumers; the Boring Company released a video of the bricks being made, but none have yet gone on sale. The initial document also claimed that the test tunnel would not involve digging under private property, but that, too, has changed—though the company has now bought all the private property it is tunneling underneath. The company has also closed a lane of Jack Northrop Avenue, a street on the other side of SpaceX headquarters, and erected a mile-long, aboveground hyperloop test tunnel that was ostensibly created for annual competitions of student prototypes but never taken down.

If Musk does expand his project beyond the Hawthorne test tunnel, he won’t be able to ignore state and federal environmental regulations. He already had to set aside his plans for tunnels in West Los Angeles; even if the CEQA lawsuits hadn’t been filed, public officials there were skeptical. “There’s pressure in Silicon Valley for companies to move fast and break things,” Meghan Sahli-Wells, Culver City’s vice mayor, said at the time. “But those companies don’t have to pick up the pieces ... We’re not going to let them come in here without a plan.”

Musk’s new plan, he says, is for a tunnel system from a to-be-determined nearby Metro station to Dodger Stadium. This plan is strange for many reasons: It is for a route that would only be used for a small part of the year, and it would compete with a project pushed by Drew McCourt, the son of the former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, to build an aerial tramway to the ballpark. One wonders why Musk doesn’t just build a test hyperloop somewhere like Idaho where the environmental regulations are a little more lax than those in California. But then again, part of the project seems to be driven by his frustration with sitting in Los Angeles traffic. He has called Los Angeles traffic “soul destroying” multiple times, and showed up late to a meeting about the proposed West L.A. tunnel because he was stuck on a major Los Angeles thoroughfare, the 405. The Boring Company acknowledges that it is “personally motivated to eradicate” L.A. traffic, but insists that the main reason for doing work in the city is “so we can go see it and work on it easily.”

That work won’t be as easy in other parts of the city as it was in Hawthorne. The Boring Company is not asking for a CEQA exemption for the proposed Dodger Stadium test tunnel, perhaps because it learned its lesson about the difficulty of building tunnels in higher-income neighborhoods. That means the process will be costly, and it will not be able to even start thinking about building for six to 36 months. “I would be very surprised if it happened,” Matute, the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies deputy director, told me. “I give it a 50–50 shot at making it to the end of the environmental-impact review without them losing interest in it because of unfavorable economics.”

Meanwhile, in Hawthorne, the company that promised its transit test projects would be completely unnoticeable by the community has since uprooted a small business, purchased a house, and closed a lane of traffic indefinitely. Local residents are learning what it’s like to live in the way of technological progress, real or imagined. Vicky Warren is planning to move out of her apartment on 120th Street and stay with her sister until she can find a new place with fewer problems.

But moving is disruptive, as Adrian Vega found out when he had to relocate his cabinet business. He has nothing negative to say about the Boring Company—he just blames himself for agreeing to be out so quickly. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, so he didn’t know what was fair. Nor did he know how hard it would be to set up a new store—the process of getting new city permits, he said, is a lengthy one, and he can’t find a way to cut through the red tape.

Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic, which originally published this article. 

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