Challenges lie ahead for The Boring Company’s D.C.-Baltimore ‘Loop’ tunneling plan

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Photo via Gov. Larry Hogan/Facebook

In late March, The Boring Company, Elon Musk’s headline-grabbing, tunnel-digging venture released new specs revealing a pared-down version of his much-hyped Hyperloop plan. The newer version, dubbed the Loop (sans “hyper”), would utilize autonomous electric skates, each carrying eight to 16 passengers or a single passenger vehicle, to zoom between the cities at 125 to 150 mph., or within roughly 15 minutes, the company says.

But the new information about the high-speed transit plan has spurred additional skepticism. Musk has said he plans to construct it without public financing, but would it require Maryland or D.C. to help with operations? Will surrounding communities suffer from the presence of two 14-foot-wide tunnels with autonomous pods zooming through? And can a machine really bore a pair of 35-mile tunnels in less than two years?

Beyond the “Loop” caveat, Musk’s firm shared some additional details:

  • A map showing the route for twin tunnels, with a Baltimore terminus within a quarter-mile of S. Paca Street–not far from Oriole Park at Camden Yards–and a D.C. endpoint at New York Avenue.
  • Construction would take 12 to 20 months.
  • The tunnels, which track the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, may include stops along the way.
  • The company hopes to eventually scale up the Loop system for its more ambitious D.C.-New York Hyperloop, which would use air pressure to shuttle passenger-filled tubes at speeds upwards of 600 mph.
  • The tunnels would be at least 30 feet underground, a depth that the company says would “ensure that construction is imperceptible at the surface.”

Here’s a video that Musk posted about what his envisioned “urban loop” system would look like. As he noted, he sees the system eventually having thousands of mini-stations:

Cristopher Moen, an associate research professor of civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, says The Boring Company’s timeline was what stood out most about the new specs. Twelve to 20 months “sounds extremely ambitious,” he said.

The Boring Company hopes to use a tunnel-boring machine that can tunnel faster than a snail, which it says is 14 times faster than most digging machinery. Tech blog Futurism has reported that the firm’s machine digs 18.2 meters, or about 60 feet, per day. At that rate (these are not scientific calculations), it would take 3,080 days, or more than eight years, to dig from S. Paca Street to New York Avenue.

Still, Moen noted Musk has come through on other highly ambitious endeavors. That includes his private space travel firm SpaceX’s successful February launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket.

“They’re studying it hard, so maybe they can pull it off,” the civil engineer says.

Right of way remains an unresolved issue. The State of Maryland has given The Boring Company a conditional utility permit to dig beneath the 10 or so miles of the B-W Parkway that it owns.

But the other 22 miles belong to the federal government—and the machines would still need to dig through city land in both D.C. and Baltimore to reach the tunnels’ endpoints. (The Trump administration has proposed selling the B-W Parkway, though its budget proposal faces considerable opposition in Congress.)

In an interview, Hiroyuki Iseki, an associate professor of Urban Studies and Planning in the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, also highlighted  environmental areas of concern that come with such a dig.

“In order to do this kind of large-capsule project, in civil engineering, they need to do a geological survey,” he said. “They need to check conditions, in this case, underground.”

Water going in—and out—needs to be considered.

Construction of the tunnel could affect outside water sources used by local residents, farmers and other agricultural business, Iseki said. Furthermore, underground water movement could reduce pressure in the surrounding soil, potentially causing subsidence, in which nearby roads or land can sink or cave in.

Moen said the tunnels will need a pressurized casing.

“The placement of those tunnel linings is always really challenging, especially if you need to keep out water. You’re always fighting water pressure. They need to be able to provide the pressure for the skates, but they also need to be able to resist the outside soil pressure and the water that comes into the tunnel.”

In an email, Moen added that the casing would also need to satisfy the pressure and structural-integrity criteria of the vacuum-like Hyperloop system, “and it should be able to exist underground for many many years… while accommodating changing soil conditions.”

There’s also the issue of subterranean obstacles, such as bedrock and utilities. Moen referenced The Big Dig in Boston, which brought the city’s Central Artery of Interstate 93 to a 1.5-mile tunnel underground tunnel, among many other major infrastructural changes, but also far exceeded its planners’ initial timing and cost projections, and required the relocation of 29 miles of utility lines.

“Tunneling projects are notoriously challenging because of the uncertainty of the underground structure,” Moen said. “A lot of times the utility mapping is approximate, both in plan and in elevation, so how deep a water main is or a gas pipeline, that’s another significant challenge for tunneling in urban areas.”

As of press time, Boring Company has not responded to an email with a list of questions about the Loop project.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), which granted Musk’s firm a conditional utility permit to begin digging in Anne Arundel County last fall, said in an email that “before any utility or access permit is provided, MDOT [State Highway Administration] would ensure there is no impact to existing utility lines.”

Image via City of Bowie

Another regulatory hurdle: the environmental impact statement (EIS) process, required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Marylanders are likely familiar with this from the recent rounds of public hearings conducted by The Northeast Maglev, a project that similarly hopes to bring high-speed transit to the D.C.-Baltimore corridor via a magnetically levitating train.

The maglev project is now in year three of its EIS, which is expected to wrap up next year. The Northeast Maglev has been working with the Federal Railroad Administration, MDOT and other agencies to solicit public feedback and assess potential effects of its train line on surrounding communities. Residents in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties have protested potential routes—both of which also track the B-W Parkway—though the firm’s CEO, Wayne Rogers, has said he expects crews will be able to break ground on the maglev line by 2020.

The Boring Company’s website says “a lot” of government agencies—including five federal ones, plus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, MDOT, the D.C. Department of Transportation and others—are “involved in the process” of planning the Loop.

Iseki, of the University of Maryland, said that because The Boring Company plans to avoid using public dollars for construction, “they probably can get away from the same types of requirements [as the maglev] from the federal government. But they at least need to go through the process in Maryland, and also the District of Columbia.”

Musk’s firm is responsible for securing all necessary federal approval, and the project will need to undergo an environmental assessment–not an EIS–according to Henson. Similarly to the maglev project, the process will involve soliciting public comment.

The state’s role, she said, “is limited to determining areas within its right-of-way that may be appropriate for the location of the facilities and that the loop meets state environmental laws.”

“MDOT is cooperating with all interested federal agencies in conducting the environmental assessment with documents provided by The Boring Company.”

Iseki has his doubts about whether the Loop can truly be built and eventually operate without any public funding.

“They are saying that the capital investment is going to be all done by the private sector, but what about operation? Is it going to be a profit-making business? What’s going to be the operating fee? I am afraid they are trying to get some special treatment with this futuristic idea, and then later it starts requiring public investment.”

According to Henson, “there is no intention by the State of Maryland to operate or regulate the operation of the loop.” That would fall to the federal government because it’s an interstate operation, she said.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
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