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Tunnel to Nowhere

eye on the news

Tunnel to Nowhere

Cities need incremental change, not renegade diggers like Elon Musk. January 31, 2017
California
Infrastructure and energy

Elon Musk is tired of Los Angeles traffic, so, he says, he’s going to build his own tunnel. The fact that anyone takes this statement seriously points up what’s wrong with the relationship between tech entrepreneurs and civic planners. Cities have problems, but the solutions require gradual fixes. The right approach isn’t radical revolt; it’s small-c conservatism.

Fifteen years ago, Musk made his fortune selling the PayPal money-transfer platform to eBay. He’s now busy with several other ventures. His Tesla electric-car company has plowed billions of investor dollars and government clean-energy tax credits into battery and automated-driving technology, contributing to the advancement of each. His SolarCity solar-panel manufacturing experiment in Buffalo, New York, on the other hand, depends entirely on a $750 million subsidy from Empire State taxpayers. Tesla and SolarCity merged last year. Musk’s commercial-space venture, SpaceX, suffered a severe setback last year when one of its rockets exploded, destroying a $200 million Facebook satellite.

That’s life as an entrepreneur. You win some; more often you lose some. Investors should be smart enough to know the risks. Musk’s tunnel project, though, isn’t a matter of experimenting with investor and taxpayer money. Instead, if taken literally, it’s civic anarchy. In December, Musk tweeted: “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging . . . . I am actually going to do this.” Last week, he reported “exciting progress on the tunnel front. Plan to start digging in a month or so.” He said that he’d start near his office in Hawthorne, a city in Los Angeles County. Wired.com has reported that Musk is already experimenting on his company’s own property.

Whether you’re a billionaire, a Twitter crank, or both, there are several good reasons why you can’t build your own tunnel beneath broader Los Angeles. Musk may be trying to point out the idiocy of laws and regulations that make it hard to build infrastructure, but he’s actually doing the opposite: reminding us why we adopted our laws and regulations in the first place. Building a tunnel disrupts traffic above it. Who would be responsible for the years-long traffic diversions? Tunnels require entrance-and-exit points. If Musk plans a tunnel for cars, not trains, how would smaller surface roads handle all the traffic going into and coming out of a fast-moving underground thoroughfare? If he plans a tunnel for trains, where will people enter and exit above ground, and how will the city keep all these new pedestrians safe from traffic? What if Musk miscalculates his tunnel’s ability to withstand an earthquake, as his staff miscalculated the safety of his rocket? It’s OK to blow up your own (and your customers’) equipment. It’s not OK to take the same risks with a city.

Extra road capacity often attracts more drivers. Despite the recent widening of L.A.’s 405 freeway, “congestion is as bad—even worse—during the busiest rush hours,” the New York Times reported last month. The way to reduce road congestion in the long term is to do what Los Angeles has been doing for nearly 30 years: build subways and light rail. Musk himself tweeted recently that Los Angeles’s subway is “lame, but getting better.”

Finally, if Musk can build a tunnel from his office to wherever he wants to go, why couldn’t every Angeleno with some money and an ego try the same? We live in a democracy, and democratic processes—particularly local ones—are important. Los Angeles residents may want a new tunnel built, or they may not. They may prefer a different tunnel to the one Musk proposes. They may prefer to live more densely than they do already, meaning more rail, or less densely, meaning more road construction. But the people do—and should—have a say.

USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey took Musk’s tunnel tweets seriously, noting that the entrepreneur is “one of the few people who is just rich, powerful and inventive enough to actually do something about the legendary traffic congestion in Los Angeles.” This is misplaced enthusiasm. Elon Musk may be a dreamer, but surely he realizes tunneling beneath Los Angeles without permission would get him arrested—and rightly so.

Tech entrepreneurs would do better to help improve government rather than bypass it. It takes too long, and is too expensive, to build any kind of infrastructure. City planners and private-sector contractors could benefit from outside review of their work processes; automating repetitive construction work, for example, could cut costs. Unfortunately, the tech industry hasn’t shown much expertise at this in the past. Tech billionaire Michael Bloomberg was a good mayor, but he didn’t cut New York City’s personnel costs during his tenure; in fact, such costs grew significantly. Nor did he make the city operate more efficiently or build its large-scale physical infrastructure more efficiently.

Running a tech business is not the same as running a government, and it never will be. Depending on a single heroic billionaire to rescue you from the result of city-planning decisions made by millions of people over many years is the wrong way to go about basic governance.

Photo by EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER/iStock

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