Elon Musk’s Tunnel Plan Isn’t as Crazy as SpaceX or Tesla

Verbal approval may not be a thing in the world of infrastructure, but don’t just dismiss this latest wacky pitch.

Elon Musk has got to be kidding. That's the consensus, anyway, a few days after the Tesla and SpaceX chief executive officer tweeted that he'd received "verbal" approval to build an ultra-high-speed rail connection capable of sending commuters from New York to Washington, D.C., via Philadelphia, in exactly—and Musk was precise here—29 minutes.

To say that there are a few issues with this plan is probably a kind way to put it. Let's start with the technical ones: That superfast train, known as the hyperloop, exists only as a prototype, and a tunnel from New York to Washington would be more than twice as long as the longest tunnel ever drilled, and more than five times longer than the longest rail tunnel. As far as anyone can tell, all Musk has done on that front is start a tunneling company that owns a used drilling machine. It's called the Boring Company, which is hilarious, but also gives the whole enterprise an unserious air.

Just as crucially: When you’re talking about a project that would cost billions of dollars and span federal, state, and local jurisdictions, verbal approval isn't really a thing. "They have really streamlined the permitting process a lot since I needed to replace the stairs on my deck," Vox’s Matthew Yglesias joked. It turns out Musk hadn’t notified the mayors of the three cities where he said his proposed hyperloop would stop.

Musk later clarified that someone in the federal government had expressed support and admitted that formal approvals had yet to be granted, but it's tough to un-call a shot like that. My colleague Eric Newcomer called Musk’s tweets "preposterous." "Musk is gonna be a brain in a jar when/if this is done," tweeted the Wall Street Journal's Chris Mims. And, for fun, I direct you to Matt Levine’s Friday newsletter, in which he noted similarities between Musk’s tunnel tweets and a prank pulled by Conan O'Brien in the 1980s.

I’m all for a laugh at a billionaire's expense, but at the risk of stepping straight into Musk's reality distortion field, I think his tunneling plan is pretty reasonable. Technically, it’s much more feasible than many are making it out to be. Politically, it’s a no-brainer. And it follows the same playbook Musk used to build support for other wackily ambitious projects. 

Sometime in the coming months, SpaceX will launch the Falcon Heavy, the largest American rocket in almost 50 years, and one designed to land vertically after delivering a payload into orbit. That’s something no rocket company had been able to do reliably before Musk came along. Given these accomplishments, it’s easy to forget that the Musk who first spoke about going into space sounded at least as crazy as the one looking to dig the world’s largest tunnel. I refer you to this 2015 Ashlee Vance story:

In late October 2001, Elon Musk went to Moscow to buy an intercontinental ballistic missile. He brought along Jim Cantrell, a kind of international aerospace supplies fixer, and Adeo Ressi, his best friend from Penn. Although Musk had tens of millions in the bank, he was trying to get a rocket on the cheap. They flew coach, and they were planning to buy a refurbished missile, not a new one. Musk figured it would be a good vehicle for sending a plant or some mice to Mars.

A nutty idea, some used industrial equipment, and a stunt that is meant to evolve into something more serioussound familiar? Musk never stopped talking about colonizing Mars, which he's made clear remains his life's work, but he has sought out incremental goals, launching satellites and winning NASA contracts. While SpaceX has a long way to go, Musk in the meantime has built a pretty nice business launching rockets for less than the big aerospace companies.

Musk followed the same basic formula with Tesla, picking a goal that many saw as impossible—a mass-market electric carand using that goal as a way to build enthusiasm, both among investors and consumers, for a series of incremental products. At the end of this month, Tesla will deliver the first production models of that mass-market car, the Model 3. The company, which struggled for survival more than once in years past, is now worth more than General Motors.

None of this makes the East Coast tunnel a sure thing, but digging sure sounds easier than building a rocket that lands vertically. When I was writing about Musk's plans for the Boring Company, I asked Bent Flyvbjerg, an expert in so-called “mega-projects,” whether there was any reason to think that Musk would have more luck that the developers of such famously quixotic projects as the Second Avenue Subway and Boston’s Big Dig. His answer, surprisingly, was yes.

Though Flyvbjerg argued that tunneling is hard, largely because you never know what you're digging into, he noted that part of what makes it so astronomically expensive is that the industry hasn't had much competition. Boring machines are essentially one-off items custom-built for a particular project, and the companies that dig the holes often have local monopolies. If Musk could translate underground the approach he brought to reusable rockets, Flyvberg said, he could drastically reduce the price of a given dig.

When it comes to the political challenges, again, I think pundits are overlooking some advantages. Infrastructure projects, unlike Obamacare repeal or a Mexican border wall, are broadly popular among both Democrats and Republicans. According to my colleague Joshua Green’s new book, Democrats were terrified in the early days of the Trump presidency that he would propose a big public-works plan, co-opting one of their stated priorities. Trump went in another direction, but his administration is only six months old. On Thursday, while much of Twitter was making fun of Musk, a White House spokesman told Bloomberg the administration had engaged in "promising conversations to date" with the would-be borer.

Of course, federal approval, still a big if, would help Musk only so much with state and local officials along his proposed route, many of whom will likely be inclined to oppose anything Trump supports. But there, too, Musk has cards to play. In New York City, for instance, any solution that might help with the Summer of Hell would be tough to reject. Elsewhere, prominent Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have expressed interest in Musk's tunnels. “I think that it would be a tremendous investment and job creator, an economic engine for the city that will pay dividends for decades ahead," Emanuel told reporters last month, discussing a possible Boring-built subway between downtown Chicago and O'Hare International Airport.

At the moment, all these possibilities seem pretty remote. But it makes sense to regard Musk’s tunnel proposal as an opening bid, the equivalent of the Martian mouse colony, rather than mocking it as if it were a fully fleshed-out plan. Like another guy known for grandiose proclamations, the tunnel plan is worth taking seriously, not literally.

    Max Chafkin
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
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