Elon Musk Tapped to Build High-Speed Tunnels in Chicago
By Bill Ruthhart and John Byrne
Autonomous 16-passenger vehicles would zip back and forth at speeds exceeding 100 mph in tunnels between the Loop and O'Hare International Airport under a high-speed transit proposal being negotiated between Mayor Rahm Emanuel's City Hall and billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk's The Boring Co., city and company officials have confirmed.
Emanuel's administration has selected Musk's company from four competing bids to provide high-speed transportation between downtown and the airport. Negotiations between the two parties will ensue in hopes of reaching a final deal to provide a long-sought-after alternative to Chicago's traffic gridlock and slower "L" trains.
In choosing Boring, Emanuel and senior City Hall officials are counting on Musk's highly touted but still unproven tunneling technology over the more traditional high-speed rail option that until recently had been envisioned as the answer to speeding up the commute between the city's central business district and one of the world's busiest airports.
Emanuel and Boring officials said it's too early to provide a timeline for the project's completion or its estimated cost, but they said Boring would pay for the entire project. That would include the construction of a new station at O'Hare and the completion of the mothballed superstation built at Block 37 under previous Mayor Richard M. Daley, who like Emanuel pushed for high-speed rail access to O'Hare.
Musk and Emanuel are expected to formally announce the proposal Thursday afternoon at that long-dormant underground station.
Under the proposal, passengers would be able to travel from the Loop to O'Hare in just 12 minutes at an estimated cost of $20 to $25 per ride. A final route for the high-speed tunnels is still subject to negotiations, and a Boring official and Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin declined to identify where it might run.
Boring's preferred preliminary route, however, would follow Randolph Street west from Block 37 and then run under the Kennedy Expressway northwest before tracking north under Halsted Street and northwest under Milwaukee Avenue. The tunnels then would run northwest under Elston Avenue near Goose Island before later again crossing under the Kennedy Expressway and heading west to O'Hare, according to a source familiar with the plans who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The transit system's O'Hare station is planned near the new global terminal Emanuel has announced as part of an $8.5 billion overhaul of the airport, the source said.
All told, Boring has estimated the project will cost less than $1 billion, according to a source familiar with the company's proposal but not authorized to speak publicly because of ongoing negotiations.
In exchange for paying to build the new transit system, Boring would keep the revenue from the system's transit fees and any money generated by advertisements, branding and in-vehicle sales, Rivkin and the company said. Ownership of the twin tunnels has not been determined, but the Emanuel administration plans to seek a long-term lease to Musk's company, a source familiar with the proposal said.
Myriad regulatory, safety and environmental questions also could affect the project's construction and timeline, Boring and city officials acknowledged.
For now, though, Emanuel is selling the idea as the latest bold "transformative" innovation in a city that found itself at the forefront of American railroads and became an early linchpin in the nation's aviation system.
"If you look at the history of Chicago ... every time we've been an innovator in transportation, we have seized the future," Emanuel said in an interview with the Tribune on Wednesday. "I think figuring out -- when time is money -- how to shrink the distance between the economic and job engines of O'Hare and downtown positions Chicago as the global leader and global city in the United States."
Beyond the big-picture rhetoric, however, plenty of questions remain.
In California and Maryland, Boring has run into regulatory hurdles and concerns from elected officials about its unproven technology.
Musk's company is still digging its first test tunnel in Hawthorne, Calif., and the passenger vehicles, which the company refers to as "skates," have yet to be thoroughly tested for public use.
The economic feasibility of Boring's project relies on Musk's confidence that it can build tunnels at least 14 times faster than previous efforts, which a company official acknowledged the company must still prove.
And while the concept of a self-driving tram or vehicle is not new, the particular model Boring envisions -- based on a modified Tesla Model X car chassis -- still has to be built on a large scale.
Emanuel remained undeterred by the uncertainty, pointing in large part to Musk's success in building electric-car powerhouse Tesla and aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, among other accomplishments.
"We're taking a bet on a guy who doesn't like to fail -- and his resources. There are a bunch of Teslas on the road. He put SpaceX together. He's proven something," Emanuel said of Musk. "The risk -- with no financial risk -- is I'm betting on a guy who has proven in space, auto and now a tunnel, that he can innovate and create something of the future. Given his track record, we are taking his reputation and saying, 'This is a guy in two other transportation modes who has not failed.' That's what we're doing."
'Skates' with eight wheels
Musk, who Forbes estimates has a net worth of $20 billion, founded Boring in late 2016 to "solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic."
The entrepreneur's main solution is a concept called "Hyperloop," an "ultra high-speed" underground transit system in which passengers ride through a vacuum tunnel system in self-driving electric pods with pressurized cabins at speeds of more than 600 mph.
The concept Musk and Boring envision for Chicago, however, is more basic and simply dubbed "Loop."
In the Loop system, 16-passenger vehicles would have both vertical and horizontal wheels. Boring officials stress the vehicles are "confined" and will "not be a car on auto drive."
Those eight "guiding wheels" will run along a nearly 18-mile track. The four vertical wheels would be similar to traditional tires on a car running along a concrete shelf on the ground. Four additional wheels on the sides of the vehicle would likely be made of steel with a polyurethane coating and would help move the vehicle by running along concrete curbs along the tunnel's walls.
"It is not on any kind of auto steering," the official said. "It is a mechanical operation where the guide wheels turn the vehicle."
The "skates," as Musk and others call them, would be able to reach top speeds of 150 mph in the tunnels' straight stretches while speeds would be reduced around curves, according to Boring.
While the tunnel's northwest route is preliminary and subject to final negotiations and engineering studies, Boring officials said there would be no use of eminent domain to seize land or the rights to any land underground.
Any public right of way Boring will use will be underground and will not necessitate closing any surface roads. Boring would buy or lease any land needed aboveground, the company official said.
The Chicago system is expected to be able to handle nearly 2,000 passengers per direction per hour, with cars leaving every 30 seconds to two minutes, city officials said. How much a ride will cost is subject to final negotiations, but Boring has stated a goal of charging between $20 and $25 -- or half the cost of a typical ride-share or cab ride to O'Hare, a source familiar with the talks said.
Key to Boring's efforts to disrupt the transportation industry is digging tunnels smarter, faster and cheaper.
The Chicago tunnels would be 14 feet in diameter, or about half the size of typical tunnels, and thus, can be dug faster and for less money, Boring officials say.
At a recent question-and-answer session in Los Angeles, Musk also said the company's boring machines would have three times the power and would run on Tesla batteries without the expense of miles of high voltage cables that other machines use. Musk also said Boring would build the tunnels' concrete shells as it continues to dig and was working with "first-rate" engineers to find ways to remove dirt faster.
"This is the only way we can think of to address chronic traffic issues in major cities," Musk said at the event, envisioning a day when hundreds of levels of underground tunnels could be built. "We think it's the one way that could work and is worth trying."
Daley, Emanuel's predecessor, often mentioned his ride aboard a magnetic levitation train in Shanghai as a possible model for Chicago, and frequently discussed the possibility of a high-speed rail line to O'Hare.
Daley envisioned the Block 37 shopping center near City Hall sitting atop a station for the high-speed rail. After the CTA and city spent more than $250 million on the Block 37 "superstation," Daley ordered the work stopped in 2008, saying the technology was outdated and more than $100 million more was still needed for completion.
The high-speed-to-O'Hare dream was dead until Emanuel resuscitated it in a May 2015 interview with the Tribune, shortly after he won his second term. In a February 2017 infrastructure speech, the mayor announced the city had retained Rivkin, a former federal transportation official, to create "an express train" to O'Hare.
Rivkin, a former general counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation, worked as the city's consultant on the project for six months before Emanuel hired him as deputy mayor. The Emanuel administration did not answer questions Wednesday about how much the city paid Rivkin as a consultant.
As part of his consulting work, Rivkin said he met with train and rail executives around the country, but also made a trip last summer with then-Deputy Mayor Steve Koch to California to visit the budding Boring headquarters. They toured the facility, saw a test vehicle run down a track and met with Musk.
"What Elon Musk and his colleagues have built, beyond Tesla and (Tesla subsidiary) SolarCity and the battery manufacturers is truly remarkable. They have reinvented rocketry, reduced the cost by a considerable margin and done things that nobody has ever done before. You have to be impressed by that," Rivkin said about his visit. "It's not just theoretical -- they are the main contractor for the space station (with NASA) and doing remarkable things, so you have to take it seriously when they say, 'We're getting into disrupting the tunneling business. We can do it cheaper, a lot faster, and we're willing to put our money where our mouth is.' "
Boring's interest became real when Musk tweeted in November that the company would compete for the Chicago project. The Tribune previously reported how emails to Emanuel showed that a May 2017 political power lunch between the mayor and a Chicago private equity investor served as the catalyst for talks between Musk and the city.
Valor Equity Partners founder Antonio Gracias, whose Chicago-based firm has invested in Musk's SpaceX, met with Emanuel in his office 32 stories above Michigan Avenue and a week later contributed the then-maximum $5,600 to the mayor's campaign. Gracias told the Tribune the contribution was not connected to the lunch and the meeting's purpose was general and not to discuss Boring.
Gracias, who with his wife has given $72,700 to the mayor's campaign, told the Tribune then that he's not an investor in Boring and that his "sole motivation was to help (Emanuel) with ideas to improve Chicago."
In an email to Emanuel, Gracias said Musk thought a tunnel to O'Hare was "feasible and is interested in discussing the idea. It would be amazing for Chicago if we can get this done."
Rivkin said the possibility of Boring building the project didn't become real until it submitted its proposal that did not call for spending taxpayer dollars -- including for the construction of the stations. The other finalist for the project was a partnership between Chicago's Loop Capital, Earvin "Magic" Johnson's investment company, two European infrastructure companies and New York-based investment firm Antarctica Capital.
City officials declined to describe the other partnership's proposal, citing the ongoing procurement process. The Emanuel administration also declined to release a copy of Boring's formal bid, saying it would be released only after a contract with the company is reached, in accordance with city contracting rules.
Rivkin said the city expects to enter into negotiations with Boring immediately, with a company official saying it expects that process to take a month. Whether and how Boring is able to generate revenue from the stations through retail or other methods will be discussed as will how the city will protect itself from any costs should the project not be completed.
In addition, Rivkin said the city will negotiate to ensure it "will share in any significant profits that are made" from Boring's Chicago system. Rivkin declined to offer a timeline for when the project might get built but said Boring was "very forward-leaning and optimistic about its timeline."
"I think Elon Musk and Rahm Emanuel share a lot of visionary qualities, and one of the other qualities they share is neither is a patient man," Rivkin said. "I expect this to move quickly."
Asked in an interview Wednesday about his relationship with Musk, Emanuel said he has "consciously not talked to him about this project," citing the city's ongoing procurement process. But the mayor said he "dealt with him in the past when I was in the White House" and has spoken with Musk at different times but it had been four or five years since they last talked.
Musk contributed the then-maximum $5,300 to Emanuel's campaign in May 2013 and gave the mayor $50,000 more in March 2015, records show.
His relationship with the mayor aside, Musk's cutting-edge technology has engendered plenty of questions from other elected officials on the East and West coasts.
Boring has already been digging a tunnel near Los Angeles, starting under a parking lot at Musk's SpaceX company headquarters. The company has also applied for a permit to dig a 2.7-mile "proof of process" tunnel beneath Los Angeles and Culver City, Calif., to show how the technology would work.
While Los Angeles officials have discussed exempting the project from some environmental impact analysis in order to fast-track it, two Los Angeles community groups filed lawsuits against the city in May arguing to waive that analysis would violate the law.
And the mayor of Culver City sent a letter to Los Angeles officials in April urging them to deny the exemption in part because "the project description is not sufficiently defined."
In October, Maryland officials issued Boring a utility permit to dig a tunnel beneath an expressway to transport passengers from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. But Maryland's attorney general subsequently argued that wasn't the appropriate permission to grant for the dig.
And in March, five federal lawmakers from Maryland wrote a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, asking what kinds of environmental, engineering and safety reviews the project would face, noting it would "utilize a wholly new technology and could have significant impacts on our constituents."
Meanwhile, Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor Herbert Einstein, whose research interests include underground construction, told Forbes in an April article that it won't be easy for Musk to greatly lower the cost of digging tunnels.
"His machines that build tunnels look pretty standard," Einstein said. "I've not seen anything from him that is different from what other people do except for the smaller diameter. ... The smaller you go, the more quickly you can build it and the cheaper. That is certainly the case, but I don't know if it's massively lower."
While Rivkin and Emanuel both expressed confidence in Musk's technology chops, they also were quick to point out that it is Boring Co. that is taking on the financial risk -- not the city.
"We've taken a long time studying this. Chicago becomes all that more competitive," Emanuel said. "We don't have any financial risk, but we do get all the upside of their investment."
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