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updated: 12/12/2018 1:56 PM

Elon Musk’s Chicago tunnel moves closer to reality

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  • This undated artist's rendering provided by The Boring Company shows an electric public transportation vehicle that is part of a proposed high-speed underground transportation system that will transport passengers from downtown Chicago to O'Hare International Airport.

    This undated artist's rendering provided by The Boring Company shows an electric public transportation vehicle that is part of a proposed high-speed underground transportation system that will transport passengers from downtown Chicago to O'Hare International Airport.
    Associated Press file photo

  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, listens as Tesla CEO and founder of the Boring Company Elon Musk, right, speaks in Chicago. The Boring Company is now midway through an environmental assessment, according to Tom Budescu, managing director of finance at the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, the organization charged with negotiating the contract on behalf of the city.

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, listens as Tesla CEO and founder of the Boring Company Elon Musk, right, speaks in Chicago. The Boring Company is now midway through an environmental assessment, according to Tom Budescu, managing director of finance at the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, the organization charged with negotiating the contract on behalf of the city.
    Associated Press/June 14, 2018

 
 

Elon Musk's planned tunneling project in Chicago, seemingly jeopardized when its biggest champion said he would not run for reelection, has taken an important step closer to building its promised transit route connecting downtown Chicago to O'Hare International Airport.

The Boring Co. is now midway through an environmental assessment, according to Tom Budescu, managing director of finance at the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, the organization charged with negotiating the contract on behalf of the city. Boring Co. was selected for the job this summer, an announcement that came with much fanfare, including a joint press conference with Musk and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. After the assessment is completed, the tunneling project will go to Chicago's city council for review.

"We're feeling very confident that the project agreement is getting to the point of refinement," Budescu said at an Infrastructure Trust meeting on Tuesday. "We're getting pretty far along in that process." He said that Boring Co. was working with federal and local officials, including the Federal Highway Administration and the Chicago Department of Transportation, on the environmental review mandated by U.S. law. Because the tunnel is likely to go under an interstate roadway, the Federal Highway Administration is overseeing the review.

The project's advancement through the early stages of environmental review signals brisk momentum for a company that launched only two years ago, but also presents a challenge. Musk has yet to prove he can get one of his several proposed tunneling initiatives beyond the concept stage and into commercial service.

The progression may also be a sign of Mayor Emanuel's determination to advance the project before he leaves office this coming May. Three months after he announced that Chicago had selected Boring Co. to build the tunnel, Emanuel said he wouldn't run for a third term as mayor, casting doubts on the future of the express service to O'Hare, which has been in the works for years.

The proposed venture would whisk Chicago passengers from the city's downtown Loop district to the airport in about 12 minutes using Boring Co.'s "Loop" technology: wheeled carriages the company calls autonomous electric skates. The skates would run at up to 150 miles per hour in dedicated tunnels.

It isn't the only Boring Co. project undergoing environmental assessment. A project to build a tunnel connecting Baltimore to Washington is quietly moving ahead, with Boring Co. staff and the Maryland Department of Transportation currently working on an environmental assessment, a spokesman for the department told Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, although a test tunnel on Los Angeles's west side was scrapped last month, Boring Co. plans to open a mile-long test tunnel in Hawthorne, California, near the headquarters of Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket company. A delegation from Chicago is expected to attend the opening next week.

If Emanuel can steer the project through city council before he leaves office, it could significantly increase the odds that the transit system, called X Line, will eventually get built. "It's a very quick timetable that they're under," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. "But not impossible."

The Chicago plan doesn't quite match the vision Musk laid out in a 2013 white paper on what he christened hyperloop, a technology that would run at 760 miles per hour, about triple the speed of any high-speed train currently operating. In a June press conference, Musk said the hyperloop concept would work for longer distances between cities, whereas shorter distances such as the 17 miles between downtown Chicago and the airport are better suited for the scaled-down loop technology. A loop system could one day connect to a broader hyperloop system, he said.

Musk is a major financier of Boring Co., but the business has also raised capital through the sale of merchandise, such as hats ($1 million in sales) and flamethrowers ($10 million).

Boring Co. has said the Chicago project will cost $1 billion, though experts have said similar projects typically cost much more. The company said the price for riders will be about half that of an Uber or taxi, which is currently about $40 per fare.