Florida politicians shouldn't buy what Elon Musk is selling. Boring Company tunnels aren't the solution to Florida's transit woes


  • Image via Miami Mayor Francis Suarez | Twitter
Kylie Jenner helped hype the latest Elon Musk project when she went for a short car ride last week in a tunnel that Musk’s Boring Company has built under Las Vegas.  As is common whenever a new gadget is marketed, Florida officials quickly joined the chorus expressing interest in building a similar concept here.

Last month, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez visited the Vegas tunnels and met with Musk to discuss the possibility of a Miami tunnel system. Other Florida politicians, including Miami-Dade Democratic Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Florida's Republican chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis, have joined Suarez in pushing for Musk to dig around in Florida’s already sinkhole-prone ground in hopes that his tunnels can make up for the decades of poor planning by officials across the state. Musk  claims he has spoken to Gov. Ron DeSantis about the possibility of tunnels under the state's porous soil.
Despite the bipartisan calls for Musk to tunnel in the state, there’s plenty of people sounding the alarms on tunnels. Naqiy McMullen has called The Boring Company’s tunnel projects “vaporware,” a term used for an item that is promised but which is not ready and may never be realized.

McMullen is a long-term resident of Central Florida and has seen firsthand how poor growth management can impact a community. While a student at the University of Central Florida, Mcmullen became a “long-suffering” LYNX rider and dedicated cyclist. He co-founded Orlando YIMBY, a non-profit organization that advocates smart growth and affordable housing in the region.

The tunnel project has a lot in common with The Simpsons' infamous monorail. It's a raft of overpromised ideas coming from an impossibly slick salesman, whose promises a brighter future that's waiting just on the other side of giving him tons of money. Speaking to the Orlando Weekly, McMullen agreed that local politicians are buying into Musk rather than any sound urban planning idea.

“I think Elon is a great salesman and sells his projects on the strength of his personality to Mayors all too eager to accommodate his empty promises just to have their cities written about as the next big thing. Elon Musk is all marketing, no substance," McMullen said. "He certainly gets a lot of pushback in the transportation planning world, but I think he is similar to Bitcoin in that there are too many true believers to get the amount of criticism his tunneling company deserves.”
We don't need to speculate that Musk's plan will be a let-down. We can look at what the man's company has already created in Vegas. The reality of the pilot tunnel is so far from the promise as to be laughable. The Boring Company presented a plan that showed the tunnel would be a decent alternative to other mass transit options, but throughout the process of realizing the tunnels, nearly every metric used to sell them was replaced with something far less impressive.

In one of the most striking examples, the sixteen-person self-driving pods, similar to buses, were replaced with Tesla cars, which for now, require drivers and have led many to question if the system meets ADA requirements. Last year, TechCrunch reviewed documents showing the Vegas system, while marketed to handle more than 4,000 passengers per hour, would only be able to have between 800 and 1,000 due to fire safety regulations linked to the stations.

The tunnels also appear to be just as inaccessible as highway-dependent places already are. Despite claims almost four years ago that they were working on tunnels for cars, pedestrians, and bicycles, there's been little evidence anyone but passengers in Tesla vehicles will ever have access to Musk's tunnels. 
There have also been concerns regarding evacuation and fire safety as the vehicles now used may prove difficult to exit from while in the tunnels. Even as many experts continue to raise warnings regarding Musk’s tunnels, the project has received little scrutiny from politicians and many in the press. 
  • Image via Miami Mayor Francis Suarez | Twitter

The shift in the tunnels from using bus-like vehicles to standard cars has led to criticisms that Musk has essentially built an underground highway. In 2019, when talking about underground tunnels, Musk tweeted, “These would be road tunnels for zero emissions vehicles only — no toxic fumes is the key. Really, just an underground road, but limited to EVs (from all auto companies).”

Numerous studies have shown that more traffic lanes do not fix traffic due to the principles of induced demand. So far, there’s no indication an underground highway that’s limited to electric vehicles would act any differently.

Janette Sadik-Khan, one of the world's leading authorities on  transportation planning, shared these same concerns when she lashed out at Musk's tunnels, stating, "Every inch of Elon Musk’s underground tour-de-farce is a mile in the wrong direction—and every story about it distracts from the sprawling urban mobility crisis that no car tunnel will ever be wide enough or long enough to fill."
This criticism isn't new but, just as many Florida politicians believe another lane on I-4 is all that's needed, Musk remains convinced we would be able to 'tunnel' our way out of traffic by continuing to add more tunnels. In one 2019 tweet, Musk laid out a vision where "100’s of layers of tunnels" exist for cars, which would be relegated to these underground highways while surface access would be via trains.

While it is promising that Florida officials are looking at alternatives to more toll roads, Mcmullen believes there are far better alternatives than Musk’s ever-changing tunnels.

“All available evidence points to the fact that society must reduce automobile dependence for a variety of health, economic, and environmental reasons,” explains McMullen. “Active transportation is much healthier and more sustainable along with leading to a happier better society than being stuck in traffic in a single-occupancy vehicle for hours.”
McMullen points to LYNX’s bus tracking app and partnerships that provide complimentary rides for many local university students as positives in an otherwise weak system. The lack of coordination between SunRail and LYNX service has McMullen skeptical that other transit systems would fix the problem but he believes the biggest issue for transit in the state is the lack of funding it receives.

“Building a frequent and reliable bus network is the top way transit agencies can improve service fast and effectively," he said. “Vegas does not have a great transit system, but it is far better than Orlando's because it has dedicated funding. Orlando's transit sucks because of lack of funding, a state government hostile to transit, and a lack of density to support ridership."

Officials in Central Florida have looked to address funding via a sales tax proposal, but the Republican-leaning Florida Supreme Court struck down a similar voter-approved sales tax plan passed in Hillsborough County. Last year, Orange County's proposed transportation linked sales tax initiative was abandoned due to the pandemic.

Despite the setback in funding, Florida must address its transit woes quickly as the state continues to see rapid growth. Mcmullen hopes local officials recognize that this must include smart growth backed transit solutions, even though things like bike lanes and new bus routes may not garner the same media attention as an Elon Musk-linked proposal.

“Investment in sustainable mass transit, preferably electric, like Orlando's downtown LYMMO bus lines, is an essential part of a more sustainable future,” explained Mcmullen. “This is what Florida and Orlando need, not snake oil from Elon.” 

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