What it would take to approve Musk’s Northeast Corridor hyperloop

Elon Musk may have verbal approval for his underground hyperloop but there is much more work to be done to get the project underway:

“It means effectively nothing,” says Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” Sure, having presidential backing isn’t bad—but it is far, far from the ballgame…

First, you have to get the OK from all the states and cities and municipalities involved. This is essential because Musk promises this Northeast hyperloop will pass through city centers, so he’s counting on tunneling under places where lots of people live and work and play. Judging by the the official responses from local agencies and politicians along the proposed route, this process is not quite underway. “This is news to City Hall,” the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Looks like the Boring Company has a lot of boring meetings with public officials ahead of it…

And then there’s the little problem of moolah. Just updating the current Northeast corridor railroad—you know, the one run by Amtrak—to high-speed rail standards would cost an estimated $123 billion. Tunneling will be even more expensive. Musk has promised his boring technology will speed up the construction and bring down costs. But boring will never be cheap, especially in populated areas. Carving less than two miles of tunnel under New York for the Second Avenue Subway took $4.5 billion. Even if this hyperloop were entirely privately financed, it would take lots of zeroes…

By law, projects need to be evaluated for the potential environmental consequences of their construction and operations, to create what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal agencies generally take a while to prepare these documents: One 2008 study found the average writeup took three and a half years, and some have taken as many as 18. They also cost a lot to prepare—millions and millions in government funds.

That is a lot to take on. I’ve seen suggestions in recent years that the United States is no longer able to tackle needed large infrastructure projects. In the past, large projects could be accomplished such as the intercontinental railroad or Hoover Dam. Today, American projects lean more toward interminable delays and huge cost overruns. In contrast, some other countries do not get bogged down in the same ways. Sure, some of that might require more authoritarian regimes – such as the new Silk Road railroad in China or the growth in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – but things get done!

Moving forward, is there a way for a country like the United States to undertake large innovative projects without all the bureaucracy that slows it down? Can we still take risks? Musk’s hyperloop might be a perfect test case: the technology barely exists so it might be an incredible risk. But, the payoff could be tremendous (and not just necessarily for the intended purpose of a new transportation technology but the other helpful pieces that come along the way – including a way forward across multiple governments and requirements).

Proposal to bury some of Lake Shore Drive and create more parkland

Chicago’s lakefront parks are impressive and a new plan suggests they could be enhanced even further by putting some of Lake Shore Drive underground:

At its heart, the plan would straighten out and bury Lake Shore Drive’s tight and dangerous Oak Street S-bend and would provide unfettered pedestrian access to 70 acres of newly created lakefront parkland, beaches, trails, and a breakwater island. The improvements would buffer the roadway from the routine abuse dealt by crashing winter waves as well as fix the dysfunctional Chicago Avenue bottleneck by removing traffic signals and adding new interchange ramps.

With a price tag reaching as high as $500 million, the project would be hugely expensive and would require the cooperation of multiple local, state, and federal entities like the various Departments of Transportation and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Provided the massive undertaking is approved and funding can be secured, construction wouldn’t begin until at least the year 2020 and will likely take many years to complete.

The pictures look great (though they also include extending the beach even further into Lake Michigan). This could be a mini version of Boston’s “Big Dig” and that project turned out great for the aboveground landscape (based on several enjoyable experiences there in recent years). Additionally, the efforts to change the path of Lake Shore Drive around the Field Museum and Soldier Field (traffic used to split around these landmarks and now follows a single path further away from the lake) worked out.

While it is often better to do such large projects sooner than later as they only get more expensive and extend current problems, one could reasonably ask why it takes so long to bring up such ideas. Is it simply that it is often cheaper to think primarily of the road? Is it that planners in the past didn’t have sufficient foresight or that our standards of what is acceptable in terms of highways within cities has changed?

Will he or won’t he tunnel under Los Angeles?

Few tunnels get as much public attention as just the idea Elon Musk has to tunnel under Los Angeles to avoid traffic:

After being stuck in heavy traffic in December, the billionaire came up with a plan to create a giant tunnel under Los Angeles to ease congestion.

‘Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…’, he tweeted…

Excavators working for the entrepreneur have already dug a test trench at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, Wired reported last week…

‘If you think of tunnels going 10, 20, 30 layers deep (or more), it is obvious that going 3D down will encompass the needs of any city’s transport of arbitrary size,’ he told Wired last week in a Twitter direct message.

I have a hard time envisioning how this could become useful for the general public. Musk would have to figure out something pretty spectacular to get the cost and time down. Or, one tunnel could open but it would be prohibitively expensive to use.

And isn’t there also an issue of freeing up land for entrances and exits from these deep tunnels? (Los Angeles might be a bit different if the tunnels are primarily for going through mountain passes.)

Exploring underground cities

Curbed takes a quick look at a number of underground cities around the world. I’ve highlighted a few – the ones that were not constructed for defense purposes:

SubTropolis (Kansas City, Missouri)

Hardly hidden—the development has its own logo—this huge warren of business parks carved into ancient bluffs that line the Missouri River claims to be the world’s largest underground storage facility and business park. Since opening in 1964, this constantly expanding operation, carved into former limestone mines and expanding at roughly 3.2 acres a year, has become a massive commercial success, attracting tenants such as Postal Service, the EPA, a cloud computing company, a food processing plant, and even a special firm that stores old film reels. Turns out giving up sunlight has plenty of business advantages; underground living means a constant temperature, virtually eliminating heating and cooling bills...

Underground City (Montreal, Canada)

Recently renamed RÉSO, a play off the French word reseau (network), this huge tunnel complex spread out underneath Quebec’s biggest city is a lot more utopian than many of the other entries on the list. The city, which now counts 20 miles of tunnels and more than 120 surface entry points, began in 1962 as passageways around and through the Place Ville-Marie, a shopping mall designed by I.M. Pei that helped hide an unsightly former rail depot. Decades later, it has expanded into a massive shopping a recreation district, including a hotel and hockey rink, and stands as one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods, most popular tourist attractions, and an escape from winter weather...

Helsinki Underground City (Helsinki, Finland)

In a bid to develop within its limited footprint, this Finnish city decided to build underground a few years ago, linking shopping centers and a metro station. Currently, a swimming pool, hockey rink, and church can all be found below the surface. Construction stretches nearly 100 feet below the surface, and the city has a master plan for roughly 200 new underground projects in the works, hoping to connect the region and expand space for industrial facilities, leaving the surface free for more aesthetically pleasing development.

These are quite different from abandoned facilities; these are locations that intentionally have sought out underground space for social activity. At the least, these take advantage of space that otherwise would not be used. Land is expensive in many cities so finding new space – same location, just underground rather than building up – can be quite advantageous. Additionally, such spaces can block out weather and utilize natural cooling and heating. I also imagine the underground status gives them some extra measure of cool. Contrast “do you want to go to the mall” with “do you want to go to the underground mall,” particularly for tourists or teenagers. However, if every city has some underground area (just like if every one has an elevated park like the High Line), they all may become less interesting.

Hiding the remains of the dead Chicago Spire

With the plans for a 150-story Chicago building postponed or dead, the massive hole in the ground is going to be harder to see:

It was supposed to be a strutting 150-story lakefront symbol of the city’s virility — but eight years after construction of the Chicago Spire skyscraper ground to a halt, the gaping hole where it was to have stood has instead become an enduring reminder of the Great Recession.

So owner Related Midwest is now hiding the unsightly circular hole that would have formed the foundation of the world’s second-tallest building behind a pile of dirt.

Workers last week started moving dirt to form a landscaped berm that will block the view of the 110-foot diameter hole from a row of 10 Streeterville row homes on the 400 block of East Water Street…

The screen, which won’t be tall enough to block the view of the hole from nearby high-rise buildings, is simply “the neighborly thing to do,” Anderson said on Tuesday, declining to comment on Related Midwest’s long-term plans for the land.

There could be a variety of reasons for blocking views of this large hole:

  1. The city requires such changes.
  2. People have complained about this, either because it is a safety issue or it harms property values.
  3. The company has some plans or changes they don’t want to broadcast.
  4. The empty hole in the ground is a negative symbol that reflects poorly on the property and Chicago.

We tend to like stories of large skyscrapers that succeed against all obstacles. They fit with narratives of endless urban growth, humans producing technological marvels, reaching for the heavens, and serve as symbols of power and wealth. Recently, I had my class watch part of Episode 8 (“The Center of the World”) of the PBS documentary New York which details the decades long effort to build the World Trade Centers which were not needed but came to be important markers. Yet, there are certainly stories of significant building projects that failed or never got off the ground. These are rarely told or there is little physical evidence that something went wrong. A large hole in the ground present for years suggests something didn’t work out and few corporations, planners, or urban officials would want to be reminded of this.

Explaining the tunnel system under Liverpool

Excavations have brought to light tunnels under Liverpool but it is unclear why a tobacco merchant created them in the early 1800s:

He also had men build tunnels. One entrance to the system even has been found in the basement of his former house. But why tunnels? Did he ask them to build his tunnels arbitrarily, for no other purpose than to be paid for work? It seems extraordinary. And yet there are no known records from Williamson’s time which offer anything like an explanation for their construction.

Instead, succeeding generations and historians have had to guess – leading to all manner of speculation. Perhaps Williamson wanted secret passages to get to and from buildings in Edge Hill. Or was a smuggler and needed the tunnels to carry out covert operations.

Or maybe he and his wife belonged to a fanatical religious cult that anticipated the end of the world, and his tunnels were designed to provide shelter during the apocalypse. Apparently, someone once made the suggestion casually on television, and the idea since stuck.

Those who have worked on the tunnels have now developed a new, somewhat more satisfying theory. Bridson points out a series of markings in the sandstone that he says are indicative of quarrying. There are channels to drain rainwater away from the rock while men worked, blocks out of which sandstone could be hewn, and various niches in the walls where rigs were once likely installed to help with extracting the stone, commonly used as a building material.

Bridson believes that before Williamson came along, these pits in the ground already existed. But it was Williamson’s idea to construct arches over them and seal them in. Properties could then be built on top of the reclaimed land – which otherwise would have been practically worthless.

I imagine there are interesting things lurking under every major city as evidenced by findings under Paris, Chicago, Seattle, London, and New York.

The land development theory is an interesting one. Williamson could benefit in two ways: by selling the excavated rock from below the surface and then also selling the land above it. Now, there might be separate rights to the above ground and below ground space but no such issues likely hindered Williamson.

When the underground borer Bertha gets stuck under Seattle – for a year

The construction of massive infrastructure underground can be impressive but it doesn’t always go as planned:

A year ago this month, North America’s largest tunnel-boring machine got stuck just 10 percent of the way through a 1.7-mile-long dig under downtown Seattle. Throughout 2014, engineers have been plugging away on an ambitious plan, outlined in a Popular Mechanics feature, to free the mechanical marvel and get the project going again.

But today, Bertha remains stuck under the city. And according to an update from The New York Times, crews monitoring the project to free the machine have noticed something alarming: one inch worth of settling in the downtown district under which Bertha now sits…

Instead, investigators eventually concluded that Bertha was overheating—that grime and gunk had gotten past bearing seals, entered the machine, and muddied the operation. Engineers still aren’t sure why all this happened to the 326-foot-long machine, but they decided they had replace not only the seals but also the $5 million main bearing.

But just getting to Bertha, which sat more than 60 feet below downtown Seattle near the stadium district and the waterfront, posed a serious problem. Crews could go through the painstaking, time-sucking process of disassembling the machine from behind to make the fixes, but instead chose to dig a 120-foot-deep access pit in front of Bertha.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that such a big project could lead to a problem that doesn’t have a quick fix. Putting together a machine this size is notable in itself and getting it back on track likely requires a lot of careful planning and long hours. Yet, these sorts of projects tend to go on without much attention until they are done and people experience the benefits. Unless something goes wrong. It would be interesting to see how Seattle responds to the delay and if someone is blamed for the problems, what kind of negative consequences they suffer.