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Elon Musk’s O’Hare Train Would Probably Not Take 12 Minutes

And other myths worth debunking about the idea.

Musk speaks at an unveiling event for the Boring Company test tunnel in December of 2018.   Photo: Branimir Kvartuc

Elon Musk has an intensely loyal fan base. To criticize him is to invite the sustained wrath of an internet following that all but worships the man.

The appeal is obvious: Musk is a dreamer. A relentless optimist. He speaks directly to the can-do, techno-utopian part of the American psyche.

But Chicago stands to take a cold, rational look at the Loop-O’Hare tunnel project proposed by Musk’s Boring Company, a prototype of which Musk showed off to city officials at the end of last year. Why? Because Musk’s projects have a track record of overpromising, under-delivering, and missing deadlines. There are good reasons the idea invites “Monorail” jokes from The Simpsons.

Leave aside the failure of high-speed airport transit projects in Toronto and London, or that Boring’s own proposal for a Los Angeles tunnel was scuttled.

Outside of Boring’s breathless promotional materials, there are serious questions about whether Musk’s promises are realistic — or, given the existing Blue Line route to which the proposed tunnel would run parallel, necessary. Current CTA Loop-O’Hare travel times of 45 minutes ($2.50-$5.00) suggest the tunnel is the answer to a question nobody is asking.

Media coverage of Musk is usually obsequious, but even friendly journalists think his Chicago plan is delusional. The staid New York Times politely suggested the project is a “pipe dream,” while pretty much everybody with experience in infrastructure has mocked the suggestion that the project will cost less than $1 billion.

(Similar projects have cost at least half a billion a mile, putting the 18-mile O’Hare tunnel somewhere around $9 billion.)

And don’t expect the tunnel to be ready when Boring says it will be. Musk’s track record with deadlines is not great, to the degree he recently found himself on the wrong end of a $20 million SEC settlement stemming from “false and misleading statements.”

Take Tesla’s solar roofs — shingles that double as solar panels to power a home — which were unveiled in 2016 but have had production pushed back to sometime in 2019. To date, a grand total of 12 roofs have been installed in California.

The Tesla Model x, too, missed its original production deadline by 18 months. The company blamed the delay on “hubris,” admitting that they’d made up a production date then realized they couldn’t hit it.

Model 3 buyers have endured similar delays. Even when dealing their finest products – Tesla cars are almost universally beloved – Musk’s companies have shown a pattern of taking customers’ money and failing to deliver on time.

For an infrastructure project, that should be a huge red flag. In fact, pretty much every fantastical claim about Musk’s O’Hare tunnel should be taken with a grain of salt. Including:

  • Boring Company will self-fund the project
  • The Loop-O’Hare ride will take 12 minutes
  • The fare will be $25; the project cost, $1 billion.
  • Underground construction will not disturb the surface

Those are startling assertions for a project that, as of now, isn’t real. For one thing, the mile-long test tunnel in Hawthorne, California, that Chicago pols recently toured carried only ordinary Tesla cars under controlled conditions. The “skates,” or train-like cabs, proposed for the Chicago tunnel don’t even exist yet.

Next: What does “self-funded” even mean here? That Chicago won’t hand Boring Company a check? What about tax incentives, free land, public utilities, and the abatement of above-ground disruptions due to construction? If those are part of the picture, “subsidized” is a better term.

And Musk’s key claim – the 12-minute travel time – is a goal, not a real figure. What if, like the predicted cost per kilogram to launch Musk’s SpaceX rockets, this figure is off by 50 percent? 100 percent? Will there even be demand for an expensive airport ride from one downtown location, Block 37, if it takes 25 minutes? And when Boring inevitably blows through its $1 billion budget, will the tunnel be profitable at $25 a ride? If not, Boring could raise rates — or walk away and saddle Chicago with the legacy costs.

The weirdest claim is that construction wouldn’t be noticed aboveground. Boring’s marketing material glosses over this with pseudosciency jargon reminiscent of Star Trek characters explaining warp drives. There are no examples – zero – of an infrastructure project dug beneath a major city that didn’t cause disruptions both above and beneath the surface.

To take Musk’s word on all of this is not only naïve. For City officials, it’s negligent. Elon will find a way is not a plan. Sure, it would be cool to have a 12-minute express train to O’Hare that cost Chicago nothing. It would also be cool to have a time machine.

Chicago’s current 45-minute Loop-O’Hare train ride soars above airport transit in other big cities. Even snooty travel magazines call it the “best value” around. The target audience for Musk’s service, it seems, is travelers who can’t tolerate 30 to 45 minutes on the CTA or expressway, and people who consider the CTA beneath them.

How this helps people of Chicago is not clear. It does not expand access to areas beyond the Blue Line, nor does it address what the overwhelming majority of Chicagoans think is a high-priority problem.

If Chicago is considering Boring’s proposal, it needs firm answers to serious questions, not a slick marketing brochure that amounts to Mr. Musk, arms spread wide, saying, Trust me!

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