The Tunnel Option

Ashland is not the only locality that does not have the space for expansion of existing transportation systems. In fact, such problems are pretty much universal in any urban or suburban area.

Elon Musk’s response to this problem is to move into the third dimension, i.e., to build a network of tunnels below the surface infrastructure.

Now there is nothing original in his insight — after all, cities around the world have been building subway systems for decades. But what Musk is claiming is that he can build tunnels much more quickly and economically than has been possible in the past. Is he correct? Well, only time will tell. But, when we look at his Tesla electric cars we see that, regardless of whether his company will eventually be financially successful, his initiative has become a ‘forcing function’ for other, more traditional automobile companies, to develop electric cars.

Maybe something similar will happen to tunnel construction. Musk has put the companies that build tunnels on notice that there is a new type of competitor in town, and that they need to look at upping their game.

So what does this have to do with the proposed “high speed” rail project? Well, the natural solution to the problem of adding capacity to the existing railroad in the Ashland area is to go underground, i.e., to build a tunnel for the new trains, and to keep the existing tracks for slow freight trains and local passenger service.

The traditional response to this suggestion has been that building a tunnel would be much more expensive than adding new surface tracks. But maybe Musk’s challenge will prove that assumption to be wrong — maybe tunnel options will turn out to be not only environmentally friendly, but also be a more sound financial investment.

Here are three examples of new tunnel projects. The first is the City of Chicago, which has just announced that it will be working with Musk’s Boring Company to build a tunnel between downtown and O’Hare airport. Second, as we have previously reported, the State of Maryland is looking at a similar system to connect Baltimore with D.C. Finally, something similar is underway in Los Angeles. Projects such as these tell us that we should not summarily reject a tunnel option on the grounds that it is too expensive. Maybe it is, and — there again — maybe it isn’t.

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