18 months ago, my wife and I were invited by BMW to test drive the all electric MINI from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and back. It was a great idea, except for one thing. But for a brief stint on the highway, the route involved mostly stop and go driving in an urban environment with lots of traffic lights and streets clogged with other vehicles. We seldom had a chance to prod the exhilarator pedal to find out what the car was capable of in spirited driving.
South Florida is a mess. The skyline is festooned with construction cranes as developers throw up high rise buildings as fast as possible. The world of finance found out during the pandemic that people really didn’t need to traipse down to Wall Street every day. They could work from home online and do just fine. The exodus from New York City has begun, and a lot of people are looking at Miami and environs as their new home.
That means congestion in South Florida — already horrendous — is about to get worse. Recently, The Boring Company, Elon Musk’s brainchild that specializes in digging underground tunnels to ease surface congestion, approached the city of Fort Lauderdale with a proposal. Let it bore a tunnel (two tunnels, actually) from the city center to the beach with a stop at Las Olas, where the city’s trendiest shops and restaurants are located. Inside the tunnels would be a fleet of self driving Teslas that would whisk people in an out of the city. The projected capacity of the project is 4,000 riders a day.
Fort Lauderdale formally accepted tonight a proposal from @elonmusk's @boringcompany to build an underground transit system between downtown and the beach. Other firms have 45 days to submit competing proposals. This could be a truly innovative way to reduce traffic congestion. pic.twitter.com/R7Bh2NPVnl
— Mayor Dean J. Trantalis (@DeanTrantalis) July 7, 2021
Spending Money To Save Money
The fascination with Musk’s tunnels is economic. “Currently, tunnels are really expensive to dig, with many projects costing between $100 million and $1 billion per mile,” Boring says on its website. “In order to make vast tunnel networks feasible, tunneling costs must be reduced by a factor of more than 10, with Boring Co. Loop tunnels currently priced at approximately $10 million per mile.” Indeed, the roughly 3-mile long tunnel for Fort Lauderdale is projected to cost just $30 million, according to Vox.
“It’s worth investigating whether that’s feasible from a structural and engineering perspective,” Lily Elefteriadou, the director of the University of Florida’s Transportation Institute, told Recode. “From a transportation systems perspective, it makes sense to look into alternatives to get people out of private vehicles and see if that might work.”
At present, there is no clear understanding of how the project would be paid for. The city has reached out to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to see if state funding might be available. The city could use public funds, or The Boring Company could front the costs with the expectation of getting paid back over time through user fees. “There would be a fee — five or six bucks — to take the route, and considering we charge $4 per hour to park on the beach, it’s definitely much better to take something like this,” Mayor Trantalis says.
Other Proposals Have Been Quietly Dropped
Maybe. But 4,000 riders a day is small potatoes compared to the number of riders a public transportation system can transport. And while autonomous Teslas were supposed to be used in the recently completed underground loop in Las Vegas, today those cars are piloted by human drivers.
Several proposed Boring Company projects have quietly disappeared from the company’s website. Proposals for Los Angeles and Chicago are no longer mentioned and the much ballyhooed tunnel from Washington, DC to Baltimore has also been dropped. When Fort Lauderdale reached out to officials in those cities, it got no response. “Talk to the Boring Company,” they all said, but the Boring Company, like all Musk led enterprises these days, has slammed a lid on any public communications.
“I think there was an expectation from Tesla that ‘we will start digging a hole and when something gets in our way we’ll deal with it and we’ll keep digging,’” Pete Rahn, the former secretary of transportation for Maryland, tells NBC News. “That’s just not how the system works in the public environment.”
A short “proof of concept” test tunnel was constructed by the Boring Company just outside the Los Angeles International Airport. It was built entirely on private land and largely did not require any permits or environmental studies to make it happen. Still, Fort Lauderdale seems not to be concerned by such details. “We are an organization that can and will eliminate the red tape that has historically existed in government,” Chris Lagerbloom, Fort Lauderdale’s city manager, tells NBC News.
Skepticism In High Places
NBC News says a recent editor’s note in Tunneling Journal dismissed Musk’s Vegas tunnels as a mere “vanity project.” In February, Martin Herrenknecht, the CEO of Herrenknecht, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of tunnel boring machines, dismissed Musk as being “full of hot air” in an interview with a German business magazine.
Jian Zhao, a professor of civil engineering and a tunnel boring expert at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said that he didn’t see how the Boring Co., given its current approach, would be “able to do things as they promised. I don’t see any new technology being mentioned.”
Rising Sea Levels
Like all of South Florida, rising sea levels are a fact of life. How long will it be before that prized Fort Lauderdale beach is underwater? And how does one dig a tunnel through limestone and sand that will remain intact for 100 years or more?
“The designers will look at what are all the loads and situations that could conceivably exist over that 100- to 150-year time period,” says Michael Mooney, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who focuses on underground construction and tunnels. “They’ll look at rising sea level, they’ll look at what the design-hurricane event will be, and then they’ll design accordingly.” Water problems could impact how high a tunnel’s two ends need to be built to keep them from being flooded.
Luis Arboleda Monsalve, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Central Florida, isn’t worried. He tells Recode, “We have done all kinds of tunnels in very, very difficult ground.” But Shimon Wdowinski, an earth and environment professor at Florida International University, is more sanguine. “We have a better idea of what can happen in the next 30 years. In 100 years, there are many more uncertainties. As everybody knows, sea level is rising.”
My wife reminds me that moving people underground on electric cars is better for the environment than having lots of cars on surface streets chugging along at 5 mph in traffic while spewing out exhaust emissions the whole time, but I wonder whether 4,000 people a day is enough to move the needle on traffic congestion in Fort Lauderdale.
Another question I have is whether the investment needed to make this proposal a reality might not be better spent on electrifying the city’s public transportation system. Everything we do means we can’t be doing something else. Is a tunnel under Fort Lauderdale the highest and best use of the money needed to build it? There are no easy answers to such questions, but I am left with the feeling that there are lot more things cities in South Florida should be worrying about than how to get to the beach.